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Justice delayed? How the criminal case backlog measures up in New Hanover County

Updated: Jun. 11, 2021 at 4:40 PM EDT
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - On a national level, experts say it could take years to clear courts backlogged from the pandemic, but it’s a different story in New Hanover County.

“I’m very pleased to report that compared to the other 41 judicial districts, our backlog is almost nonexistent,” said District Attorney Ben David.

Statewide, the district court criminal case backlog has grown each year since 2018 by a small percentage, but experts saw significant growth in the backlog in 2020. In North Carolina, COVID has produced a delay of nearly 100,000 criminal and infraction cases, making up 11 percent of the total statewide backlog.

However, the study from the state notes a lot of variation in case backlogs county by county.

New Hanover County has one of the best criminal case backlog rates in the state, despite shutdowns during the pandemic.

Because of COVID-19, they had to do things differently, like setting up video hearings to prevent moving inmates in and out of the jail, or worse, having people wait behind bars for their cases to be called.

“We couldn’t just close during a pandemic; we had to find a way to be open,” said Chief District Court Judge J. Corpening. “We spread their court dates out so everybody didn’t come at 9:30 anymore. We had folks who had initial appearances; who were planning to enter guilty pleas or ask for continuances; to come in at 9:30 where trials come in at 2. We actually used a restaurant app to manage the number of people we had come into the courtroom it’s called Tables Ready.”

Tables Ready is the same technology used at Buffalo Wild Wings and IHOP, but New Hanover County court officials were using it to notify people via text message when it was safe to come to court.

Across the street at the Division of Juvenile Justice, leaders have been piloting new virtual hearing technology since their new facility opened that allows someone to have their day in court without leaving home. Corpening says it gives them the ability to also hold blended hearings in family cases, where a parent living out of state could hop into a hearing with other adults sitting in the DJJ building.

“As a result of those experiences trying to keep court open and do it remotely, our administrative officer of the courts found an opportunity to use CARES Act funds to take us really into the 21st-century, technology wise, and invested about $3.5 million in technology for courts all over the state, so that every county in North Carolina will get a set of the audio-video equipment like we’ve got here in this building,” added Corpening.

Leaders agree there’s been plenty of changes for the better brought on by finding creative solutions to pandemic problems, because justice delayed is justice denied.

“We’re being copied now by other places for a reason and it’s because it works,” said David.

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