South Carolina’s criminal justice system will see changes in the coming months, as millions of dollars the Legislature approved to help lighten unmanageable prosecutor caseloads start to trickle into judicial circuits.
The Legislature approved $7.8 million in this year’s state budget with the goal of adding an estimated 104 prosecutors statewide. The cash is expected to lower the burden on prosecutors, especially in poorer and rural districts, where the workload discrepancy is stark.
Marion County, for example – largely rural and wedged between Florence and Horry counties – had one prosecutor with 933 cases when the S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination made its budget request to the Legislature earlier this year.
Closer to home, Kershaw prosecutors tackled as many as 517 cases, while Richland County prosecutors had an average of 231. Though both counties belong to the Fifth Judicial Circuit, they differ in affluence and how much each can contribute to hire prosecutors.
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The state and counties are expected to share the cost of hiring a prosecutor. When smaller or poorer counties can’t afford a prosecutor, solicitors are forced to distribute those cases with the prosecutors covering neighboring counties, adding to their workload.
And the longer it takes for a prosecutor to tackle a case, the harder it becomes to prosecute, said Duffie Stone, chairman of the Commission on Prosecution Coordination. Witnesses forget things or even die, while the accused may sit in the state’s crowded prisons for years awaiting trail.
Still in the works are decisions on how the state money will be divided and what effects it will have locally. The formula has changed to ensure that each county gets at least one prosecutor. In 2015, three counties – Saluda, McCormick and Allendale – had none.
But statewide, the average caseload is still a difficult-to-manage 376. The goal of the Commission on Prosecution Coordination is to drive that number down to 200, because the average time it takes for a case to go to trial in South Carolina now is more than a year, Stone said.
Stone – who is also the solicitor for the 14th Judicial Circuit, which is composed of five counties including Beaufort and Colleton – acknowledged that it’s hard for the public to understand the significance of tackling 376 cases a year. He likened the burden to that of a waiting room.
“The next time you go into the doctor’s office, imagine 376 people in the waiting room,” Stone said.
Fourth Circuit Solicitor William Rogers said the extra support will help him sleep better at night, knowing his prosecutor in Chesterfield won’t be facing a caseload of 945 alone anymore. He compared his prosecutors’ caseloads to trying to get a drink of water out of a fire hose.
“Having more prosecutors I think will allow us to be more effective,” Rogers said. “It’ll finally be enough money for us to be able to do our job, instead of a battle unit on the field trying to do patchwork.”
Legislators also approved $2.9 million to have South Carolina hire more prosecutors specifically to deal with criminal domestic violence cases and end the practice of having police officers playing the role of prosecutor against seasoned criminal defense attorneys in magistrates court.
During the 2015 legislative session, when the General Assembly passed a law that strengthened domestic violence penalties, advocates cited officers acting as prosecutors as one of the reasons cases against batterers were routinely dropped in court.
Also, some witnesses don’t want to cooperate, said Jarod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association. Having a trained prosecutor who can chase a case, even when a victim backs out, can be a way to reduce the high rate of violence against women, he said.
“Law enforcement officers are not necessarily trained to be prosecutors,” Bruder said. “From our perspective, it’s more than just about moving cases faster, it’s getting the right people to prosecute those types of cases.”
The extra money is expected to reduce the average caseload to 280. That’s a start, said David Ross, executive director of the Commission on Prosecution Coordination.
“It’ll just be a huge help in being able to prosecute cases effectively, because we’ll have more prosecutors working on the cases.” Ross said.
How busy are people who prosecute cases?
S.C. average caseload: 376
Estimated new average: 280
Midlands caseloads per prosecutor, by county
Highest caseloads statewide per prosecutor