NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - New Hanover County courts are some of the fastest in the state when it comes to moving felony cases through the court system. The average case here takes about five months to process, compared to the state average of seven months.
Still - there are dozens of inmates who have been in jail for over a year awaiting trial for non-violent offenses.
The running joke at the New Hanover County Jail: leave the inmates in there long enough without a trial, and they'll eventually plead guilty.
"After you've been in here for so long, you get tired. You get tired of just not knowing what's going to happen," said James Thomas, an inmate at the New Hanover County Jail since March 2012. "You just sit, sit, sit, sit, sit sit sit, and after sitting so long, you'll take an offer. That happens a lot."
"If they offered me a decent plea I would take it," said fellow inmate Torrey Grady, who has been in jail since April of 2012 on drug charges.
Thomas hasn't been convicted yet, but by the time he goes to court on drug trafficking charges next spring, it will have been almost two years since his arrest.
District Attorney Ben David says delays going to court for cases like his have nothing to do with strategy, or trying to break the inmates will. He says he'd like to proceed with these cases but often cannot because of SBI backlogs processing evidence.
"It costs $80 a day to incarcerate someone at the New Hanover County Jail," David said. "At any given time we have about 550 prisoners, if we can move just a few of those cases along more quickly, that can save tens of thousands of dollars a year, and can easily justify more lab equipment, more salaries at the local level for drug testing. I have been saying that with every breath in my body when someone asks me about that for years now."
Prosecutors and defense attorneys agree this isn't just a concern for inmates waiting for trial. It's a problem for the public when defendants get out of jail on bond - and have the opportunity to re offend before a conviction.
"To me, this is a community safety issue," David explained.
Public Defender Jennifer Harjo says she also sees trial delays as a big problem for young offenders who need a wake up call.
"When they keep committing the same act with no punishment, no penalty, it teaches them a lesson as well and it's not a good one that they are learning," said Harjo.
Trying to reduce delays, David has spearheaded the opening of labs at the Wilmington Police Department and the NHC Sheriff's Office.
They can process some evidence, but judges say evidence for major trafficking cases like those involving the inmates we interviewed, still has to be processed by the state lab.
"Can't go to trial without it," said Chief District Court Judge Jay Corpening. "The SBI guys will tell you, ‘We're backed up. We are understaffed.'"
So if everyone agrees this is a problem, why is there still not a local lab capable of processing all evidence?
The short answer is money. Even though the county has to pay to house these inmates while they wait for lab results - the state typically pays for evidence to be processed. Although the General Assembly has approved some additional funding to reduce the backlog at the SBI lab, so far it hasn't been enough to fix the problem.
The state and county cannot agree on who would fund a full-service lab in Wilmington.
Several courthouse officials we spoke to also cite the Wilmington Police Department as a source of delay. Law enforcement agencies are required to provide a police report to the district attorney within 14 days of an arrest, but that isn't always happening with the WPD.
Harjo said delayed reports, coupled with significant police evidence being turned over to her at the last minute, adds to the delay moving cases through the court system.
"It's impossible for attorneys to adequately prepare for cases if we don't receive the information that the state is required to provide to us in advance," she said.
David thinks part of the problem is the WPD doesn't have enough detectives to process cases and reports. To combat recent violent crime, the police department has beefed up patrol units, but that strategy may have come at a cost to the detective force.
The WPD tells us their case load can be tremendous at times, and they are trying their best to keep up. "By and large, on most cases, we comply with the 14 day status," explain WPD Lt. Tom Witkowski. "If we get real busy, there are times where we may miss a deadline, but we do everything we can with the manpower that we have to get everything in on time."
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