More than 25 percent of all criminal cases in South Carolina are more than 18 months old, a backlog that state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal wants to reduce.
A proposal championed by Toal would require solicitors to turn over such cases to chief administrative judges to get them through the court system faster.
It's one part of a proposed new system for handling criminal cases in the state. Toal told GreenvilleOnline.com last week the proposal would be unveiled later this summer to clerks and judges.
The Supreme Court decided last year to order changes that would lessen the authority of solicitors to schedule criminal cases, following the court's ruling in a case that the current system was unconstitutional. But the justices put changes aimed at speeding up the system on hold within a month after hearing a wave of concerns by prosecutors, public defenders, judges and court clerks.
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Solicitor Duffie Stone of the 14th Judicial Circuit, which includes Beaufort County, said the solution lies with a bill in the legislature that would allow defendants to ask a judge to set a trial date. He declined to comment on Toal's proposal, which he had not seen, but other solicitors have said it could be a hardship, especially for smaller judicial circuits that have fewer prosecutors than larger circuits.
Under the bill Stone supports, a defendant in a criminal trial could ask the Circuit Court's chief administrative judge for a hearing to set a trial date if a case has not been tried within 180 days. The bill would also allow defendants to ask for a hearing if their arrest warrant hasn't appeared before a grand jury within 90 days.
Stone said the bill would solve a constitutional issue, and it would also safeguard smaller circuits.
He added that it would not lead to many defendants calling for trials, as most of the delays are not caused by the prosecution.
"Defense lawyers have told me that delay is the defense's best friend," he said. "Delay never helps us. Witnesses forget details, and it only makes it harder for us to prosecute."
The bill passed the S.C. House of Representatives in February. It is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee, to be taken up in the next legislative session that begins in January.
Stone said he didn't know how many cases in the 14th Circuit would be affected by Toal's proposal. He did say the 14th Circuit has been able to cut its backlog from about 6,000 cases in 2009 to 3,700 in 2013.
He agreed with other solicitors in the state who said the main culprit behind case backlogs is lack of money to hire more prosecutors.
"The No. 1 problem is funding," said Solicitor David Pascoe of the 1st Circuit, which covers Dorchester, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties. "And the second problem is funding, and the third problem is funding."
Solicitor Ernest Finney III, whose Third Circuit covers Sumter, Clarendon, Lee and Williamsburg counties, said last week that a lack of resources and manpower in his circuit would make it difficult for him to resolve cases fast enough to comply with Toal's proposal.
Stone said the disparity in resources is present even in his circuit. Funding from Beaufort County employs eight of the 24 prosecutors in the 14th Circuit, which also spans Jasper, Allendale, Hampton and Colleton counties. But Allendale County -- where 40 percent of the population is below the poverty line -- can only afford one prosecutor, he said.
Attempts to reach Judge Carmen Mullen, the 14th Circuit's chief administrative judge, for comment on Toal's proposal were unsuccessful.
Toal told GreenvilleOnline.com she expected a new proposal to be revealed soon.
"We are very close in my view to having something that I think will acknowledge the good systems that are in place but also develop a template that will require this type of management everywhere," she said.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.
GreenvilleOnline.com staff reporter Tim Smith contributed to this article.