Little Rock's rising crime rate coupled with covid-related court delays has about tripled the caseload in Pulaski County Circuit Court over the past two years, forcing prosecutors and public defenders to struggle to keep up.
The recent infection spike driven by the rise of the omicron variant has forced the courts to delay jury trials scheduled for this month. That's more than 100 trials in January pushed back in only one courtroom alone.
A court system equipped to take on about 5,000 criminal cases per year, mostly divided between three full-time criminal courts, is now dealing with almost three times that many because so few cases have been cleared since the pandemic began. Circuit Judge Leon Johnson, the circuit's administrative judge who operates a 100 percent criminal court, said more delays are assured if the infection rate can't be curtailed.
"Covid is backing up the dockets and will for some time," he said Tuesday.
Johnson said judges will meet next week to discuss how to resolve the situation, but any solution to the problem will not be quick.
The other full-time criminal judges are Cathi Compton and Barry Sims. Pre-pandemic, their three courts would have 1,600 to 1,800 open cases, but now two of them have more than 3,000 open cases while the third has at least 2,500.
The stress from being forced to take on an ever-growing workload has manifested itself differently for prosecutors and public defenders.
The prosecuting attorney's office, with 36 lawyers in circuit court, is seeing an unprecedented prosecutor turnover rate of about 35 percent, with some new hires lasting only months on the job, daunted by workloads that can reach from 761 to 827 cases in some circumstances, said John Johnson, chief deputy prosecuting attorney.
"There's only so many cases one person can handle," he said.
To overcome staffing issues, Johnson said the prosecutor's office has been fast-tracking training to get new lawyers ready for circuit court. A process that had taken as long as a year prior to covid now can take just a few months, with more instruction provided as the lawyers assume their circuit role, he said.
Prosecutors have been working to reduce the rising case numbers, resolving some low-level drug cases in district court or offering some qualifying defendants the chance to have their charges dropped if they can stay out of trouble for six months or a year, Johnson said.
But prosecutors are also more than their caseloads, Johnson said. Aside from appearing in court, prosecutors also review investigations conducted by local police agencies, sometimes to determine whether arrests should be made or what charges should be filed after an arrest. In 2021, the office reviewed 5,806 of those police referrals, resulting in 4,759 felony cases filed in circuit court last year.
Pulaski County's public defender office, which has 17 lawyers in circuit court, is getting close to the breaking point, its chief Bill Simpson recently reported in a two-page letter to the judges after a review of his agency's operations by Stark Ligon for the state Supreme Court's office of ethics counsel.
"We have concluded that our current caseload in the circuit courts of the Sixth Judicial District results in ethical violations," Simpson wrote. "Specifically, we find that our office's current caseload prevents competent, diligent, and prompt resolution of clients' cases in compliance with the rules of professional conduct."
Ligon determined that if the public defenders can only take on new clients at the expense of cutting services to the detriment of their existing clients, the agency would run afoul of the Arkansas Rules of Professional Conduct. The rules bar lawyers from taking on more clients than they can realistically accommodate.
In an interview, Simpson said that if a process is not put in place to alleviate his lawyers' workloads, public defenders will stop taking on new circuit-court clients as of March 1.
Simpson and his chief deputy, Kent Krause, said they've seen the average caseload rise from about 100 cases to 400, with a few defenders carrying 500 cases. Simpson said he's got to balance his duty to make sure indigent clients have competent legal representation with his obligations to the well-being of his staff. At this moment, the only way he can see to make sure both sides are being served is to cut back on accepting appointments, he said. It's also the last thing he wants.
"Covid has changed everything," said Simpson, the public defender since 1979. "I have never refused to accept a case. I don't want to stop accepting cases now."
If Simpson refuses new clients, the burden would likely fall onto the statewide Public Defender Commission, its director Gregg Parrish said Tuesday. That's not a solution either, Parrish said. He said his agency has little funds to pay for extra attorneys for Pulaski County, and there is also a shortage of qualified lawyers who would meet commission standards for employment.
"The money's going to dry up and then what?" he said. "How do you find enough lawyers to do this?"
Pulaski County is not the only one dealing with the effects of covid delays, he said. Overworked lawyers with ballooning caseloads have been an issue in the criminal justice system for decades, and covid has just made it worse, Parrish said.
"It's going to take the involvement of everybody, and that's if you can find the money and the people, and there's no guarantee of that on either front," he said. "These problems existed before covid, but they have now been magnified three or four times."