Article published December 3, 1991
Roll call exemplifies burden of court system
A line of more than 500 people snaked around the Spartanburg County Courthouse Monday, illustrating a clogged criminal justice system that gets more crowded daily.
Criminal suspects scheduled to appear in court to report their addresses and telephone numbers or plead without a lawyer formed a line from the Library Street entrance around to Magnolia Street and south almost a block to St. John Street.
The scene is repeated several times a year. About every two months, on the Monday after the county grand jury convenes, suspects are supposed to appear at the courthouse and wait in line. About 560 came Monday morning. Suspects are summoned for roll call on the bond tickets issued by county magistrates. The date is the same for hundreds of people arrested during the month or more between grand jury meetings. The problem intensifies as the court system's backlog increases. Unless their lawyers make other arrangements, suspects have to appear at each roll call until their cases are heard, which can take a year or more.
On Monday, the line collected about 8 a.m. and dwindled to an end by noon after eight people from the Solicitor's Office had noted who appeared for court.
Prosecutors often seek warrants for those who don't show up for roll call. Prosecutors say roll call helps them ensure that suspects out on bond, who often are transient, unemployed and hard to find, appear to face their charges.
"It's a way for us to obtain and keep some information on a number of criminal defendants that we're required to prosecute," Solicitor's Office Administrator Evins Littlefield said. He said bond ticket information often is out of date or incorrect. "I'm not saying it's the only way to handle it," he said. "Many factors would go into changing this."
The system began more than a decade ago by order of the late Circuit Judge Paul Moore as a way to ensure the appearance of suspects in court and move cases. While it may have worked when the criminal docket had fewer than 1,000 cases, times have changed. Through October, Spartanburg had 8,509 pending cases, second in the state only to Columbia, which had about 250 more cases. Spartanburg is ranked third behind Greenville and Charleston in the number of cases it has disposed of through October, the same ranking the county had for disposing cases in 1990.
Reducing the numbers of people who line up for roll call or managing it differently calls for cooperation among magistrates, prosecutors, judges and the Public Defender's Office. No effort has been made to change the practice.
Circuit Judge E.C. Burnett III, administrative judge for the circuit through December, declined Monday to comment on roll call.
"This is a byproduct of a bigger problem," Littlefield said, citing the county's crime rate, an underfunded justice system and jail overcrowding as key factors. "Give us enough judges, court time and jail space, and you won't see that sight out there," he said.
In Charleston, Solicitor Charles Condon plans to move within weeks from one roll call a month to two. His office gives a schedule of roll call dates to magistrates, and those judges use the schedule for dates listed on bond tickets. Roll calls in Charleston are conducted even when court is out of session.
"It works about as well as it can be done," Condon said. "It's difficult. The defendants we deal with are the most irresponsible people in the world."
About four months after arrest, people in Charleston are due back in court after they've been indicted. At that point, if they want a trial, a court date is scheduled with oldest cases going first. At any time, a person can plead guilty.
"A lot depends on local custom," Condon said. "A lot depends on the local judges and local prosecutors."
Many of the people in line at the Spartanburg County Courthouse depend on the Public Defender's Office for legal help because they can't afford private attorneys. They must show up for roll call, while private attorneys arrange for their clients to miss it.
Spartanburg County Public Defender T. Louis Cox believes roll call is used mainly to obtain guilty pleas from people who can't afford a lawyer.
"The reason they're bringing them up here is they're trying to get them to plead guilty," Cox said. "That's what it's all about."
Cox said prosecutors should work forward from the oldest case by sending out letters to perhaps several hundred people, setting an appearance date. He argues that hundreds of people are required to appear in court, but prosecutors can't handle all the cases even if people wanted to plead guilty.
Littlefield believes few would arrive at an appointed time several months distant if that idea were implemented.