OKATIE, SC (WSAV) – It is a way to decrease the massive pandemic-related court backlog in the Lowcountry while still making sure criminals go to jail.
That’s the new initiative outlined by 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone.
It is a five-point proposal that changes parts of the process when it comes to prosecuting criminals, all with one goal, to do it faster, better, and more efficiently.
Right now there are more than 5600 cases waiting in the Circuit, which includes Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton and Colleton counties, all waiting to go to trial or be resolved.
That unprecedented number has gone up more than 1500 cases since the pandemic started and courts closed.
Solicitor Duffie Stone wants to change the way his team works to streamline the process.
While some people may say it’s a detriment to the suspects who have a right to a speedy trial, Stone actually says it hurts prosecutors more. Witnesses have to remember what they saw for the stand and evidence has to be kept pristine for cases.
That’s why he created five initiatives to professionally reduce the backlog and get a speedy trial to benefit everyone.
His attorneys will now no longer attend preliminary hearings, allowing detectives and investigators to testify instead.
“Preliminary hearings have no basis in what prosecutors do,” Stone says. “they hold no real value. they take hours out of prosecutors’ days that are not relevant to the prosecution of the case.”
Stone added that his office would continue to decide what cases should be brought before a Grand Jury, no matter what a judge may decide in a preliminary hearing.
He is rotating prosecutors monthly in a “triage” format to help make sure the best case can be made against a suspect. It also could benefit people who were arrested but don’t need to go to jail, and instead could benefit from other punishments, such as diversion programs.
Stone also wants prosecutors to work with law enforcement before and after an arrest. Before meeting with the detectives before they get a warrant. Working with them so the case can go directly to Grand Jury to get indictments.
It is a shortcut to the system Stone says to speed up the process.
That program would be voluntary for law enforcement.
Possibly the biggest change, no more plea bargains for suspects.
“We will make recommendations, sentencing recommendations to judges on two factors and two factors alone,” Duffie Stone/14th Circuit Solicitor Number one, the severity of the crime, number two the criminal defendants prior criminal history. Whether they plead guilty or go to trial, the recommendation will remain the same.”
“If a defendant is a danger to the community they should stay in jail,” continued Stone. “And if they deserve a certain sentence they should get it.”
The Solicitor has also hired five new attornies to work on the office and help knock down these cases.
While he does not have money in the budget for their salaries right now, Stone has had discussions with the local legislators, including the County Council, and believes they are all “concerned” about the backlog, and will add the necessary money to the budget when it comes up for debate in June.
Stone says his office wants to be transparent and will be updating the backlog numbers for everyone to see on a monthly basis.
He says at the current rate it could take six years just to get the case numbers back to where they were before the pandemic started.