Solicitor’s Office uses technology, preparation to deal with case backlog

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OKATIE, SC (WSAV)- Almost 8 months without trials has left many South Carolina prosecutors with a backlog of cases.

The 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office is using technology to try and keep up and keep everyone safe.

“We’ve had a need for web based case management systems so you can get to information on your laptop,” said Duffie Stone.

That’s why 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone started upgrading the technology in his office and the six counties he serves years ago. Something that paid off when the pandemic hit.

“It probably took our lawyers 15-20 minutes to literally pack up their laptops, drive home and crank everything back up,” said Stone.

But Stone said he made sure all his staff had laptops at the ready and were able to work the same at home as they could at the office.

Prosecutors could prepare cases for trial, even though courts were still closed.

“We put resources toward being mobile and that we could get to our cases and the evidence and do it all virtually,” explained the Solicitor. “When the pandemic hit we were more prepared.”

They had another tool at their disposal, a digital evidence system. Starting a few years ago, all 21 law enforcement agencies in the Circuit drop their evidence into an online system. So it was at the fingertips of lawyers anytime they needed it.

“We were able to get them to send to us all the evidence sent to us in digital formats, collecting that, all that working through the cloud,” explained Stone.

The cases did pile up in the 8 months courts were closed. 3600 before COVID-19, now 4800 open cases. In Beaufort County alone, 2112 remain to wait to close.

“Is it going to delay some of those cases? Certainly,” said Stone. “And it’s going to be delayed not just in the 14th Circuit but in the entire country.”

“The judicial system is never worked at a breakneck speed unless it’s on television where someone gets arrested in the first 15 minutes and they get prosecuted and sent to prison in the last 30.”

But that does not mean prosecutors will “fast track” any case or make an easy plea deal just to get it off the books.

“If you interviewed any of my prosecutors very few of them would even know how many cases they were handling because that’s not where I want them focused,” says Stone. “I want them focused on doing the right thing to the right people for the right reasons. I want them focused on handling each case professionally.”

“You have to stay focused on what is important or what the biggest goal is, which is making sure every one of those cases is handled professionally, making sure you are doing whatever you can to obtain justice on each and every one of those cases. So we don’t need to be in a position of panic. We don’t need to try to.. you are going to get to the case when you get to it.”

Court went back in session last month. Prosecutors stepped up, ready to try cases. The first on the list, so-called “career criminals”. Stone says those are the ones who commit the majority of the crimes, and the ones that most need to be off the street.

The courts are making sure jurors are safe. Plexiglass barriers in jury boxes, masks in courthouses, technology being used more frequently for a bond, and preliminary hearings. Where suspects will not be brought to courthouses, but left in jails and arraigned virtually. Stone says that also helps beyond COVID-19, by keeping them out of the proximity of their victims.

He believes the technology “boom” in Solicitor’s and District Attorney’s offices around the nation will continue. Some he’s spoken to say they added 5 years of improvements in the first five weeks of the pandemic, with even more to come.

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