Fulton County is close to moving forward with its plan to reopen the rest of its courtrooms and address a giant case backlog that has built up due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past 15.5 months, though some courts that did not require jury trials reopened because they could operate remotely, most of the county’s courts have been shut down due to statewide coronavirus-related restrictions.
But on June 4, Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton announced the statewide judicial emergency he declared in March 2020 would end June 30. That means Fulton can in July begin implementing its plan to reopen the rest of its courts.
“Fundamentally, there’s about 200,000 cases in the backlog, (and) a thousand folks (are) in the Fulton County Jail unindicted as a consequence of this,” County Manager Dick Anderson said. “It will take about 30 to 34 months to work this backlog down, and that assumes over 300 additional (Fulton employees) will be hired, from judges to assistant district attorneys to public defenders to other court personnel.”
Anderson provided an update on the situation at the Fulton Board of Commissioners’ June 30 mayors meeting, which was held virtually due to the pandemic.
The county plans to spend $59.7 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to help rid itself of the backlog. Its strategy includes having 20 more courtrooms, with District Attorney Fani Willis convening two grand juries at the same time instead of one and doubling its trial capacity. Fulton may even conduct night court and/or weekend court to help eliminate the backlog.
At past board meetings, county officials had said they hoped to reopen the courts as early as March but had to wait for the statewide judicial emergency order to be lifted.
At the board’s April 14 meeting, Alton Adams, Fulton’s deputy COO for public safety, said the backlog was up to 206,717 cases and included 34,283 Superior Court cases, 39,871 State Court cases and a whopping 132,563 Magistrate Court cases. The federal funds allocated to the courts must be used by October 2024.
Of the county’s plan to wipe out the backlog, Anderson said, “We’re all collectively excited about solving problems and paving a new path forward. But it is a big, big issue and certainly plays into some level the crime everyone is concerned about in metro Atlanta.”
In other pandemic-related news, county COO Anna Roach said Fulton’s efforts to speed up the process in which it’s doling out federal COVID-19 funds to qualified tenants and landlords in its rental/utilities assistance program are paying off. The initiative has been delayed because of applications being incorrectly filled out or other related paperwork issues.
Of the $18 million it received for the initiative through the U.S. Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which was approved by Congress in December, Fulton had doled out only $2.5 million in rental aid and $141,000 in utility assistance to its eligible residents, Roach said at the board’s of June 16.
Fulton had already hired 30 employees through a company called P&N to handle case reviews and other paperwork, and added 70 more workers via P&N from early June to June 21. Since it began on-boarding those applications with the increased staff, the county “almost immediately saw an increase in the number of applications adjudicated,” Roach said.
“As an example, if you look at the trajectory of our approvals, which started in the low 100s in late April/early May and jumped to around 300 when we added the first set of resources,” she said. “In the midst of adding this more aggressive set of resources, we went from approving 447 applications on June 13 to approving 1,185 applications on June 20.”
With the increase in staffing, the county expects to dole out all of the funds within eight weeks.
“Most importantly, we have begun communications with the state for them to open up state-level applications to Fulton County applicants,” Roach said. “I think the Georgia DCA (Department of Community Affairs) is pleased with the pace of Fulton County applications, and we are the first locally funded jurisdiction they have made an offer to open the state application process to our constituents.”