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A new court schedule for 2009 should make the criminal justice system in Beaufort County more efficient, potentially easing overcrowding at the jail and requiring fewer people to serve jury duty.
Instead of having one judge for two weeks a month, the county's General Sessions Court will have two judges for one week, allowing one courtroom to be used for trials while the other handles guilty pleas.
The schedule was proposed by the 14th Circuit solicitor, Duffie Stone, and recently was approved by the S.C. Judicial Department.
Here's why it will be more efficient: Currently, when a courtroom is used for a trial -- especially a complex one -- the judge can't conduct other business and hear guilty pleas except during breaks in the trial. Trials for serious crimes typically require a half-day of jury selection and last three or four days. That leaves only two days or less for other hearings.
"If you don't have another judge in another courtroom, you can't move many other cases along," Stone said.
On General Session weeks when there isn't a trial, Stone's office is able to prosecute roughly 170 cases with guilty pleas. On trial weeks, that number is at least cut in half and is sometimes reduced even more, meaning more people sit in jail awaiting their cases to be heard.
Under the new schedule, the two courtrooms will operate simultaneously. It also means the court will only need to call up jurors once a month. Currently, jurors have to be called up or put on standby for the second week that General Sessions is held each month.
"I really think we're going to get more efficient and more effective with what we're doing," Stone said. "It's more bang for the buck."
The new schedule will fit in well with another of Stone's proposals: a team to prosecute career criminals. The team of three seasoned prosecutors would prepare trial cases against county jail inmates with past criminal histories who won't plead guilty and who shouldn't be given plea deals.
That team would be able to proceed with at least one trial a month without bogging down the court's other business, Stone said.
The team is expected to cost $264,450 a year. Stone has asked the Beaufort County Council to pay $187,050. The council is still considering that budget request.
In addition to changing Beaufort County's court schedule, Stone also requested that the state double the number of weeks for Jasper County's General Sessions Court in anticipation of that county's projected population growth.
This year, Jasper County has a judge for six weeks. In the first six months of 2009, the county will have five court weeks. The state will set the remainder of the schedule early next year. Stone is hoping for another five or six weeks in the second half of the year.
"We have to put system in place that recognizes the tremendous growth in Jasper County over the next two or three years," Stone said.