Georgia courts, investigators say they’re tackling backlogs
ATLANTA (AP) — Leaders of Georgia’s state court system on Wednesday told lawmakers they’re trying to pass out federal money as fast as they can to help courts catch up with pandemic-related backlogs, while the leader of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation says it’s a challenge to station a medical examiner in Macon at any price.
Supreme Court Presiding Justice Michael P. Boggs told budget writers that a committee of court officials has already awarded $24.8 million of the $96 million in federal aid to reimburse money that courts spend on temporary employees and otherwise increasing the capacity for courts to handle cases.
However, Boggs said court administrators are unable to estimate how long it will take for judges to catch up to where they were before COVID-19 began causing court shutdowns in 2020.
“It’s nearly impossible to measure case backlogs until courts actually return to a pre-pandemic capacity,” Boggs said.
Boggs said one metro Atlanta area circuit has four-and-a-half times as many cases pending in state court, which handles lower-level cases, than it had ever had before the pandemic. He said a circuit in northern Georgia has 134% more felony cases pending and 69% more serious violent felony cases.
Of the $110 million allotted by Gov. Brian Kemp, $14 million went to public defenders. Boggs said the court system is seeking to hand out $48 million this year, or half its money. He said 26 of the 50 judicial circuits have already gotten money to advance serious felony cases, while 23 more applications are currently pending, including 14 from circuits that haven’t received money.
“These courts are all working very hard to try to dig out of some very serious consequences of the COVID pandemic.” Boggs said he hoped federal funds could be used for broader uses and that county funds could be used to move other cases along.
Boggs said the court system is seeking restoration of about $6.6 million to its budget from cuts two years ago, saying it needs to spend on “things that simply cannot be delayed any longer.”
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds said that with additional money lawmakers allotted last year, his organization has been able to hire 10 new forensic scientists, six new death investigators and three new medical examiners.
However, despite offering an extra $10,000 and then an extra $20,000, Reynolds said that GBI has been unable to hire a physician medical examiner to staff its Macon office. Reopening that office has been a top priority for lawmakers because county coroners from Macon and places to the south and east must spend extra time and money transporting bodies to Atlanta for autopsies.
“Finding a doctor there has been one of the most difficult things that I’ve taken on,” Reynolds said, saying there just aren’t enough pathologists graduating from medical schools nationwide.
Reynolds said he has tried to work with Mercer University to attract a qualified pathologist, but has thus far failed. He also said that despite having a full complement of examiners in the Atlanta lab, the workload per examiner has ballooned far above the national standard of 250 autopsies a year because of an increase in the number of bodies being turned over to GBI for autopsies.
Reynolds said a long-term solution would be to expand Georgia’s fellowship program that provides further education to newly graduated pathologists, but he said the group that licenses such fellowship programs won’t approve more training slots without more fully trained pathologists to oversee trainees.
GBI is making progress in reducing the backlog of sexual assault kits awaiting testing, with Reynolds saying the lab had 1,758 kits that were more than 30 days old when he took over in 2019, and that amount has now fallen to 544 kits. He said GBI is seeking to push those numbers down further. He also said the state is seeing success in using private labs to help test for things like drugs.
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