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Courts feeling squeeze
Funding, space tight in 2010
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Forsyth County News
Forsyth County’s judicial system is burdened by mounting caseloads, limited space and dwindling funds, court officials say.

And it’s a situation unlikely to improve in the near future as the financial challenges are expected to grow.

With about 4,000 new cases filed last year, Forsyth County Superior Court has met the quota for a third judge, but the state doesn’t have the money to pay for the position.

Instead of adding the needed post, justices from other local courts are having to fill in.

Dawn Childress, Bell-Forsyth Judicial Circuit Court administrator, handles the budgets for State and Superior courts, as well as court administration, which includes drug and DUI courts and pre-trial services.

She said the county’s population growth in recent years has taken its toll on the judiciary, especially Superior Court.

Childress explained that because of a growing backlog of cases, state court judges as well as Chief Magistrate Walker Bramblett and Chief Juvenile Court Judge Russell Jackson are sitting in to help out.

“We can’t get visiting judges in because there’s no [state] money for that,” Childress said. “All the way around, the judiciary’s really been hit.

And with the county’s finances, we’re having to do things not to cut corners but to really cut back unless they are absolutely mandated.”

Those constitutionally mandated requirements include interpreters, court reporters and jury fees.

‘Just really bare bones’

Childress said the only way to cut costs is to hold less court. In criminal cases, that can result in more people sitting in jail for longer periods of time, which also increases costs.

She said the budgets she handles have been cut as much as possible, to the point “you’re talking about $80 in business cards for six people in Superior Court for a year and $750 in paper.”

“Postage is $7,000, and they wanted to cut that, but notices have to be mailed,” she said. “We’re struggling to get everything we have.”

The system gets funding from the state and county, both of which have made cuts wherever possible.

Childress and Forsyth County Solicitor General Leslie Abernathy both addressed the county commission during budget discussions last fall.

Abernathy felt the funding proposed at the time didn’t match what was needed or reflected in her department, with money and services moved around in the budget without any explanation.

Last week, Childress said there are 20 employees working in the departments with which she deals and five of them are paid by the state.

She said she has applied for grants to help make ends meet, but the money from them doesn’t always address the court system’s needs.

“We’re just really bare bones,” she said. “We can’t add anything else or take anything else away.”

Childress also said an administrative order has been issued so that as of Jan. 1, guilty pleas are no longer transcribed unless they are mandated.

“We are still having guilty plea transcripts coming in from when Judge [Stan] Gault was alive,” she said. The late Superior Court judge died in 2003.

Clerk of Court Greg Allen, whose office is in the county courthouse, said he had to cut his staff by three this year, from 34 employees to 31.

“We’ve had a meeting with everyone here and they understand we’ve got severe budget problems and restraints, so everybody’s doing their best to do everything now,” he said. “We just don’t have the manpower we used to.”

Allen said his employees are also using the backs of papers that don’t have to be destroyed as scratch pads.

Each case is filed in its own folder, so Allen said he’s cut back on the quality of folders being used.

“We’re making due,” he said. “I’d rather buy cheap folders ... I can’t afford to cut back on staff anymore.”

Bramblett said he just began filling in at Superior Court on hearings for temporary restraining orders.

He also has been helping with fast-track sentencing, where defendants are sentenced at the same time plea bargains are entered.

Bramblett said Magistrate Court had to cut back financially on some of its ambitions, but “it’s OK.”

“We have to work a little harder at it and plan a little better, but we can keep up with the load that we have,” he said, adding that a vacant position was eliminated in 2008.

He also said with seven employees, magistrate court is small and, like state court, produces revenue.

Magistrate Court handles many criminal misdemeanors. Arraignments and trials are held twice a month. Bramblett said the misdemeanor calendars are “pressing at the seams.”

“Sometimes they have some pretty long days and I’ve been watching that,” he said. “I think the next thing we’ll need to add is another day or two for the misdemeanor cases, but right now the funds are not available.”

Facility ‘nowhere near adequate’

Bramblett said it would be ideal to have all the courts under one roof.

“But we’re fortunate with our facility,” he said. “The people in the courthouse, State and Superior Court, it’s a very bad situation for them spacewise. That facility is nowhere near adequate.”

Part of the problem the judicial system faces when the county requests budget cuts, Childress said, lies in the fact that there are fixed costs for running courts that can’t be changed.

“So along with the increase in cases we also have a need for judges, and the problem there is we can’t even take on a new judge without a new facility,” she said, adding that the court system is spread out.

For example, Juvenile Court is in an old hotel off Bald Ridge Marina Road and Magistrate Court is housed on Tribble Gap Road, in the same building as the county tax commissioner’s office.

Court administration, pretrial services, DUI and Probate courts are across West Maple Street from the county courthouse, where there are no additional courtrooms.

Forsyth County Probate Judge Lynwood Jordan said expenditures in his department can be scaled back on a short-term level, but that’s about it.

“You can’t control the number of people dying,” he said. “You can’t control the number of incapacitated adults from Alzheimer’s or dementia or congenital defects needing guardians and conservators, and you can’t control the number of minors or children who need guardians and conservators for various reasons.”

In past years, Jordan said, Probate Court has managed to come in under budget. But part of the recent financial balancing act has required him to make what he calls “artificial” cuts.

“We eliminated line items for bailiffs and cut back on court reporters and cut back on some other things such as that,” Jordan said. “But if we have to have a jury trial, we have to have bailiffs.

“So I have a letter from the county chief financial officer saying that if we need to do these things that they will supply the money, and I’ve got some jury trials coming up so they’ll have to supply the money.”

Fortunately, Probate Court workers made a concerted effort to get caught up on general operating procedures a few years ago, before the economic crisis hit.

As a result, Jordan said, Probate hasn’t had the burden facing other courts.

Childress said because the room in the courthouse designated for jury assembly is too small, the courts use the commissioners’ meeting room in the county administration building on Main Street.

That adds costs because of safety concerns and the need for court security and bailiffs to escort jurors back and forth across the street.

“The way the courthouse now is set up, and with the required court security that we have, you see the lines around the building trying to get in,” she said. “And we have so many people in and out of the courthouse that it’s just packed to the gills.

“We really need a new physical facility, because right now we have courts in four different buildings.”

Forsyth County grand jury presentments over the past few years have included recommendations that the county expand its sheriff’s headquarters, courthouse and jail.

Still, recent votes would indicate that a new facility would appear unlikely anytime soon.

In 2008, voters rejected separate bond referendums that would have funded a new jail and sheriff’s headquarters. It was the fourth time in eight years a jail measure had failed.

In the meantime, Allen will make daily trips to a storage facility on Pilgrim Mill Road to collect files.

He said files also are stored in small vaults in the courthouse, as well as in two trailers behind it and in the basement of a building across the street.

Because of required security measures and the building’s layout, there’s not much room for large groups of people trying to get in the courthouse either.

“[Jan. 5] we had a traffic arraignment and we had people on the sidewalk past the gazebo waiting to get in the courthouse,” he said. “It was cold. It was quite a mess.”