New system to address court backlog

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By Johnathan Ryan

Sixth Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield took advantage of his time before local business leaders Dec. 20 to tell them about his office's work and its significance to commerce in this area.

Barfield told those at the Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce's Third Thursday meeting at Lancaster City Hall about a new system the office will use to deal with the county's case backlog, after acknowledging that the county has a substantial backlog of cases for all kinds of criminal charges, both new and old.

"We do have a backlog. There's no doubt about it," Barfield said.

But the good news is that the office has been working on a plan to turn the situation around.

Barfield said the differential case management system is going into effect at the beginning of the year. It will allow for the more efficient expediting of cases, based on priority.

More serious crimes will be on a longer track to either be pleaded out or tried; less serious ones will be put on a shorter track. All cases will have an initial hearing to determine who the defendant's lawyer will be, whether the lawyer wants a preliminary trial and whether the defendant will take a plea offer.

That will streamline the office's process and prevent defendants from working the system to their advantage, Barfield said. Under the old system, defendants could delay the judicial process by not getting a lawyer or switching lawyers frequently, he said.

Under the new system, defendants will also have a "drop-dead date" to accept a plea offer. Barfield said guilty plea offers are a practical part of his office's strategy to reduce the case load, despite the public's dislike for them.

"Everybody hates it, but it has to happen. People do it all over the country," he said.

Barfield said the Lancaster County office has seen a spike in the number of cases it's handling, which he blames on illegal drugs.

"Probably the biggest thing that has impacted the volume of cases is drugs "crack," Barfield said.

There is also an increasing number of cases involving crimes against businesses, such as theft, and fraud against individuals, such as forgery. He asked business owners to use common sense to spot crime, like taking note of someone coming in regularly and cashing checks in another's name, or someone showing up with a $7,000 or $8,000 check indicating they won the lotto in another state and wanting to cash it. Those are "scam checks," Barfield said.

Lancaster County's hiring of another full-time public defender last year has helped move cases more quickly. Both parties are now more prepared to get proceedings concluded.

"And we loved them for it," Barfield said, smiling. "We're moving a lot more cases each Monday morning."

Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce President Dean Faile reminded business leaders at the meeting that sometimes it takes a tax burden upfront to save on social costs later on. The proposed construction of a new Lancaster County Courthouse was mentioned along those same lines.

"We need a new courthouse," Barfield said. "The courtroom itself is great, but the rest of the building is really non-functional."

Due to the design of the facility and the proximity of defendants to other people, Barfield said "there's a disaster waiting to happen."

The local band Restore played Christmas tunes after Barfield's 30-minute speech.

The next chamber monthly meeting will be at 8 a.m. Jan. 17 at the Carole Ray Dowling Center at the University of South Carolina at Lancaster.

Contact Johnathan Ryan at 416-8416 or jryan@thelancasternews.com