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“And then the tsunami came”: Backlog of court cases is central topic of Dawson County budget hearings
Public safety budgets 1
Northeastern Judicial Circuit Court Administrator Jason Stephenson speaks to the Board of Commissioners about the rising caseload in Dawson County Superior Court during an Aug. 24 budget hearing. - photo by Julia Fechter

Note: This article is the first in a series of articles about the proposed FY2023 budgets for different Dawson County government departments. 

Felony cases in Dawson County Superior Court are up 105% since before the COVID-19 pandemic, court administrator Jason Stephenson told the Board of Commissioners at an Aug. 24 budget hearing. 

The announcement follows the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, which includes Hall and Dawson Counties, receiving $1 million in state American Rescue Plan Act funds earlier this year to address case backlogs in both counties. 

This story continues below.

A surge wasn’t entirely unexpected, but the uptick still surprised Stephenson and his colleagues.

“There have been more felony filings in Dawson County in the first six months of this year than all of 2021, or at any previous year that we’ve been tracking,” said Stephenson, “so we’re going to blow through historical case numbers.”  

Since the start of 2022, 875 new cases–a 30% increase–were filed in Dawson County Superior Court, and about half of those are felony ones, which is an unusually high ratio, Stephenson said. 

While Dawson County Superior Court has also closed a record 804 cases as of June, he said there’s also 2023’s pending caseload to consider.

Going into next year, there will be 1,333 criminal, civil and domestic cases, with the criminal ones already being indicted. That would be manageable given the court’s typical benchmark of 1,500-odd cases. 

But add in the pre-indictment cases, and the caseload doubles.

“And that pending pre-indictment caseload is really the truest picture of what’s coming in 2023,” Stephenson said. 

“It’s just mind boggling to me,” said District 1 Commissioner Sharon Fausett. “It’s just snowballed on you, hasn’t it?”

“We’re trying to plan for a 2023 that’s going to be even busier than this year…so as we move through the budget request, that’s the reason for it,” he added. 

Budget items

Stephenson presented operating and salary budgets of $235,123 and $516,700, up 15.36% and 10.22% respectively over 2022. 

New requests include $12,000 for 280 total bailiff days, an increase of 43%. Stephenson clarified with Fausett that increasing the bailiffs’ pay to $85 per day earlier this year did not factor into the need for more bailiff money. 

Also proposed is $17,955 for a 5% cost-of-living adjustment for the court’s three full-time employees and 36 supplemental ones. 

“We don’t want to fall behind,” Stephenson said, “and given inflation of 8-9% over the last year, our wages are falling behind if we don't address that, and we don’t want to wait years to do it.”

Dually, $17,955 is suggested for merit increases, an idea Stephenson said County Manager David Headley mentioned in previous BOC meetings. 

The judicial circuit also wants to redeploy $37,120 from ARPA funds in the last quarter of 2022

Of that amount, $20,000 would go toward more bailiff days and $17,120 to pay three additional judges for helping preside over Dawson County plea deals. 

The Superior Court was not alone in requesting budget increases. 

On Thursday morning, District Attorney Lee Darragh requested $46,500 for a new legal assistant position, citing the need to free up his prosecutors’ time. 

Supervising Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer, who oversees cases in Dawson County, doubled down on the need for a legal assistant.

“If we can maintain admins around that level [of pay], we can retain them. Once they see they’re making a difference, they don’t look at it like work anymore,” Greer said. “[They] fall in love with this place. It’s worth fighting for. That's what we do. I’m targeting that person that wants to be here.”

Circuit public defender Brad Morris requested $45,890 to fill a Dawson County assistant public defender position.

Similar to the prosecutors, Morris said his offices’ caseload has doubled, from 306 open cases to 800 this year in Dawson County. His lawyers represent defendants in HELP Court, DUI, misdemeanor, juvenile and felony cases. 

Morris recognized that the “huge shortage of lawyers” isn’t unique to the Northeastern Judicial Circuit but mentioned that the starting salary for a public defender in Atlanta is $104,000, a little over twice what individuals are paid in Dawson County. 

Morris also brought up $6,000 in supplemental salary funds that his office lost access to after 2018 and said that putting it back in the budget would be helpful as far as “rewarding and encouraging” employees. 

He said that adding back this lawyer position would be very beneficial for Senior Assistant Public Defender Sarah Willis. 

“I think Sarah's done a good job over here. I think she’s really energized things a lot,” Morris said. “It’s a busy court. It’s a busy county. It’s getting busier all the time.”

Public safety budgets 2
Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson requests more GCIC, patrol and jailer positions during an Aug. 25 budget hearing for DCSO and E911. - photo by Julia Fechter

Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson, who also presented Thursday, asked for $351,689 to fund five more positions for E911’s GCIC unit, with a $70,337 salary, including benefits and equipment, allotted for each position. 

This unit’s duties include but aren’t limited to checking warrants’ statuses, inputting time-sensitive information on missing persons or juveniles and pulling criminal histories. Additional staffing would also allow for there to constantly be a person present at the jail’s front window, providing 24-hour coverage, Johnson said. 

He also requested adding two patrol deputies at $90,059 each and four unfrozen jail officer positions at $70,553 each.

“I could fill my patrol positions tomorrow should I be able to fill my jail positions, and that’s our sticking point with it right now,” Johnson said. 

The sheriff’s office is also requesting funds to support national training for jail officers, at a cost of $6,820 for the first year and $4,475 for each subsequent year.  

“Our jail captain has the desire–and I fully support that–to have our jail headed in that direction,” Johnson said. “We look at it as an insurance policy.”

Similarly, Fire and Emergency Services had several notable asks, as presented by outgoing Chief Danny Thompson on Aug. 24. One of Fire & EMS’ main requests is to transition all but one part-time position to six full-time positions. That change would cost $497,759 with benefits and equipment for three firefighter-EMTs and three firefighter-paramedics. The county would save more than $500,000 by eliminating the part-time positions. 

The additional positions would also allow other full-time Fire & EMS employees to more easily coordinate taking time off around the holidays, Thompson added. 

There are five vacancies across the stations now. Three of the four new employees for Fire & EMS were hired under the new recruit title and grade approved a few weeks ago by the BOC, interim director Jason Dooley said in follow-up comments to DCN.

“We’re starting to fill vacancies, so hopefully that will factor into their decision to fill the budget request,” Dooley said of the BOC. 

Fire & EMS is also asking for six lieutenant positions, each at $92,063 including benefits, which would cost a cumulative $552,379. These positions would allow Fire & EMS to put a company officer, akin to a frontline supervisor, at stations 3 and 8, Dooley said.

Security upgrades have also been proposed at each of the department’s eight fire stations. Funding of $105,000 would outfit all of the stations with either badge access and/or video camera surveillance. 

These proposed upgrades would be part of an ongoing plan to sequentially update the stations one at a time, Thompson told the board. Upgrade costs would be spread out over the next four fiscal years, with $30,000 proposed in FY2023 and $25,000 proposed for each of the following three years. 

Volunteer stations 4 and 5 are due for a rebuild as part of the department’s five-year plan, so the increased security measures can be implemented into the new building plans, he added. 

Jason Dooley pointed to break-ins to firefighters/EMS personnel’s vehicles four to five years ago as part of the reason for the desired upgrades. He also called the July 2019 killing of Amy Gibson in front of Station 7 “a huge factor.” 

“We want them (the fire stations) to remain public buildings, but there also has to be control of who has access,” the interim director said. “We don't mind people coming in as long as we know that they’re there for the right reasons.”

Backlog causes

Stephenson elaborated that while felony cases are driving a lot of what’s seen in the courts’ budget requests, that’s not the only factor to consider. 

“Is it more people? Are more people doing more [criminal] things?,” Fausett said to Greer on Thursday.

Greer, who oversees Dawson County cases, said that it’s a combination of things. 

Public safety budgets 3
Supervising Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer talks to the board on Aug. 25 about the challenges presented by the types of cases the Dawson County District Attorney’s Office prosecutes. - photo by Julia Fechter

Johnson noted Thursday that the area’s population growth in recent years and an expected 35% increase in call volume over 2020 and an unsettling 33% uptick in family violence-related calls by the end of this year. Those calls often require more officers and time to address, and they’re often some of the most dangerous calls an officer can go on, Johnson said.

DCSO’s almost two-year-old H.E.A.T. (Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic) Unit has also made a difference, Judge Clint Bearden said on Tuesday.

Since H.E.A.T. 's start in Dawson County, Bearden pointed out that the DA’s Office has been “proactive” in charging more people with traffic, drug trafficking and misdemeanor offenses. By the DA’s Office filing accusations before cases had to be taken before a grand jury, prosecutors avoided letting the backlog become “an even bigger of a tsunami” later down the line, the judge said. 

Greer said that while processing more cases has proved difficult, it has “made everyone’s life here safer,” later adding that the increase in cases due to H.E.A.T. was indicative of a “problem that was always there.” 

“They’re not out there going, ‘I just want to arrest people,’” Greer said of deputies. “That ain’t it. These aren’t those kinds of cases.”

District 4 Commissioner Emory Dooley wanted to know how many of the people committing crimes in Dawson County are local. Probate-related crimes are mostly committed by people living in Dawson or adjacent counties. Locals commit most misdemeanors, with family violence being a third of those offenses. 

“Probably less than half” of the people committing felonies live in Dawson County, Greer said, adding that “virtually none” of the people committing thefts at North Georgia Premium Outlets or trafficking drugs reside in Dawson. 

“That doesn’t make it any less our problem,” Emory Dooley said. 

While the pandemic worsened the backlog of superior court cases, the assistant district attorney said the rise in cases preceded the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In 2017, Greer said the superior court took in 652 criminal cases and 713 defendants. 

When 2020 hit, the superior court was shut down by judicial order but still managed to take in 919 cases and 1,006 defendants. By the end of 2021, those figures were 1,029 cases and 1,128 defendants. 

Before the end of last year, the judicial circuit planned for Judge Jason Deal to help with misdemeanor trials and for Judge Bearden to handle Dawson County’s criminal docket.

“And then the tsunami came,” Stephenson said.  

As an example, during the July 29 calendar call, Bearden stayed at the courthouse until about 10 p.m. to help sheriff’s office deputies close out cases.

“We are on pace to be right around 1,200 defendants this year. That is a 49.7% increase in the number of criminal cases in superior court since the calendar year 2017,” Greer said. 

The assistant district attorney added that this was more so due to a level of “crimes against persons” cases that he “isn’t familiar with” in his 15 years working in Dawson County. 

The heavy caseload has meant 100-plus defendants scheduled for calendar calls and more than 300 set for recent trial weeks.

Greer later added that at the same time, staffing shortages across the judicial circuit have contributed to attorneys working on more matters an admin could handle, costing taxpayers since lawyers are paid higher rates. 

And that work dynamic, plus the pandemic’s impact, can make it difficult to recruit assistant district attorneys, though another one isn’t currently needed in Dawson.

“People want to be here, but with the amount of work asked to be done…no human being with the numbers I just told you could keep up,” Greer said to the board. 

Of particular concern to Greer are three open murder cases in Dawson County, more than the county has had in a 10-year period, and 26 sex crimes against children cases “of such a serious nature that the defendant could get a life sentence.”

With the massive time crunch come very difficult decisions about which cases to pursue.

“My concern with the administrative problems is I might miss something and am missing something, I don't accept that as a possibility in our world. We don’t miss things,” Greer said.  “I’m actually having to look at cases for the first time and saying… ‘We can’t deal with that case. We’ve got to just let it go because of the more serious offenses.”

For example, child molestation cases must be prosecuted before thefts by shoplifting.

“It’s priorities, and children are priorities in my book, every time,” Fausett said. 

Like others at the hearing, Emory Dooley agreed that more important cases have to be taken care of first, and he also had concerns about theft-related crimes against businesses.

“If word gets out that we’re behind on [prosecuting] that, then people are going to say, “Let’s come up here, and we know they may give us a break if we do get caught,’” he added. 

“That’s not what we want to happen, and that is a very legitimate concern,” Greer said. “We want strong relationships with our business partners and our citizens. That’s what we work for every day, protecting both.”

The Board of Commissioners is scheduled to hold a presentation on its FY2023 budget as a whole on Oct. 6, followed by a series of required hearings on Oct. 20 and Nov. 3.