By Ed Brock
Clayton County's load of felony cases continues to mount, but the district attorney's office has a plan for keeping the wheels of justice rolling relatively swiftly.
It involves deferring prosecution in certain cases involving non-violent first offenders and special circumstances, Senior Assistant District Attorney Todd Naugle said.
"It gives us another weapon to combat the case load," Naugle said.
Clayton County's District Attorney's Office prosecuted about 3,700 defendants facing 8,500 different charges in 2004, Naugle said. According to the Georgia Administrative Office of the Courts the county prosecuted 1,863 cases with 2,156 felony defendants in 2003, a drop in the bucket compared to the over 11,000 cases with 13,000 defendants prosecuted in Atlanta that same year.
But the numbers are growing, Naugle said, a trend that's been in place for the past 10 years.
"The population is growing and the crime rate is increasing with it," Naugle said.
On average it takes about four to six months for a case to go from arrest to trial, Naugle said, depending on the case.
"We're one of the quickest in the metro area," Naugle said.
According to statewide statistics, the percentage of inmates in the county jail awaiting trial is far below the average for other metro counties, Naugle said.
All of the metro counties are seeing an increase in caseloads, said attorney Lee Sexton, immediate past president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"I don't see Clayton County being any more deluged or less deluged than any other county," Sexton said.
District Attorney Jewel Scott started the deferred prosecution program shortly after taking office in January, Naugle said.
The program is implemented in cases where there is some unique element that leads prosecutors to believe it is best dealt with outside the usual criminal justice system. For example, in some cases of domestic disturbances in which there has not yet been actual violence the victim may be unwilling to press charges.
If the prosecutors try to bring the case to trial with an uncooperative victim, Naugle said, a jury is likely to acquit the defendant anyway.
So under the new program the defendant agrees to undergo pre-approved programs, dealing with anger management perhaps, and if they complete it successfully the charges are dropped.
"This gives us the opportunity to get the defendant some help without having to prosecute with an uncooperative victim," Naugle said. "They have to successfully complete the program, then the charges are dismissed. If they don't complete the program then we go back to square one."
And the defendant pays for the cost of the program so it doesn't use taxpayer money.
In another example an employee stole a truck and some checks from his employer to get money for drugs. The employer retrieved the stolen items.
"The employer didn't want the defendant prosecuted but did want him to get drug and alcohol treatment," Naugle said.
Drug abuse is a major contributor to the district attorney's caseload, whether in crimes of possession and distribution of drugs or criminal acts perpetrated for the sake of drugs.
"I'd say that 75 percent of our cases have some kind of drug overtone to them," Naugle said.
Deferred prosecution programs, also called diversion programs, are something Sexton has always supported.
"When you consider the cost of going to trial ... sometimes a pretrial diversion program is just what the doctor ordered," Sexton said.
Naugle said only a few cases have been diverted so far as they are starting the program carefully on a case by case basis.
Other judicial circuits with higher felony caseloads than Clayton County in 2003 are Stone Mountain (4,179 cases), Cobb County (3,748 cases), Gwinnett (3,346 cases) and the Eastern circuit (2,747 cases).