To look at a recent report by Nelly Withers to the state bar is to see a recorders court in turmoil.
The first half of the report, a Power Point presentation, is essentially slide after slide of alarming statistics – the growing backlog of outstanding tickets, the lack of compliance with courts and state agencies, the tumbling rate of case closures over the last 10 years.
“It was a nightmare,” said Withers, the DeKalb County Recorders Court’s chief judge, sitting in her office earlier this month.
Withers was appointed in January after a grand jury showed the court had not collected millions in fines and reported that former employees were indicted in a ticket-fixing ring. After a shake-up in court leadership, the county board of commissioners named Withers the new chief.
Things were quiet for about three months. Then, in April, came the letters to people with outstanding citations. The court was trying to crawl from beneath the weight of 500,000 outstanding citations. Withers created an amnesty program that allowed people with outstanding tickets to pay them while avoiding fines attendant to missing their court date. (Some ticket holders were also spared other fines as well.) That program ended April 30 and generated more than $1.6 million in revenue.
The program created massive lines for days outside the court and hours-long waits for those standing in them. Stories of arriving at the court at 5 a.m. and leaving six or eight hours later were not uncommon. Sweaty citation holders griped outside, angered by the relative chaos.
Inside, Withers believed it necessary to return the court to normalcy. The court’s case closure rate steadily fell from roughly 95 percent in 2000 to less than 70 percent in 2008, according to a report by Withers. In that same amount of time, the case count has risen from nearly 150,000 to nearly 250,000. The numbers of warrants issued to retrieve those tickets sunk to almost nothing in 2005.
Withers said she doesn’t know. She was preceded by Judge R. Joy Walker. When Withers and other court officials came to Walker with issues, she said they were being handled.
“Anytime that I came to her with a concern, it was ‘I’m taking care of it,’” she said.
Walker could not be reached for comment.
Now, it’s Withers’ job to return the court to normalcy. Since she’s taken over, the court is once again compliant with Georgia’s Department of Driver Services. Before, the Recorders Court often didn’t notify the department when drivers did not attend court dates or pay their fines. The department uses that notification to begin the process of terminating a person’s driver’s license.
All court judges will be required to complete training through the Municipal Court Judges Council – training that was previously encouraged but not mandatory, Withers said. Clerks and deputies, supervisors and tribunal clerks will also have to attend training through their own association.
Withers also said the court is streamlining its schedule. Before, police officers could choose their court dates, leading to long delays and ineffective closure rates.
“Some of them wouldn’t pick their court date for months and months,” she said.
Now, that freedom will be curtailed, and officers will only be allowed the choice of times on given dates.
In July, the court will also allow people to pay traffic tickets online via an online Traffic Bureau. People interested in pleading not guilty will be able to do so online as well 10 days before their arraignment. The program would kick out a next available trial date for that person to appear.
“All of this is no small feat because we’ve been here for four or five months,” Withers said.
The court process was also stymied by computer programs that organized case information and weren’t compatible to each other, requiring hours of extra manual processing by court employees. That’s also being fixed, Withers said.
But for now, the court will continue to cut back the outstanding number of backlogged citations. Withers said court employees currently process 1,000 backlogged citations each day in addition to normal citations still coming into the court.
“That volume is almost doubling for a facility that can barely manage the situation,” she said.
Withers said she expects the backlog could be processed entirely within a year, roughly.
“We have a new vision of what this court ought to be,” she said. “It matters to me that this place functions like a real court.”