Increase in cases, outdated system a challenge for prosecutors
By Blake Belden, Staff Writer
May 20, 2014, 11:07
COLONIAL HEIGHTS — A sharp increase in total casework and an inefficient, outdated case management system have long created the need for additional staffing within the Colonial Heights Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Bill Bray.
At this time, there are only three full-time administrative positions within the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, one less than there was in 2005, when the total number of criminal cases was just over half of the number there were in 2013.
According to statistics from the Virginia Supreme Court, there were 793 total criminal cases commenced in Colonial Heights Circuit Court in 2005, and there were 1,354 total cases commenced in 2013, a 70 percent increase in circuit court cases with one less person on staff to handle administrative tasks.
While the number of administrative positions in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office has declined from four to three since 2005, the total number of arrests and employees in the police department has increased over the same period of time.
In 2005, there were 2,358 total arrests (excluding traffic arrests) in the city with 45 sworn officers in the Colonial Heights Police Department compared to 3,050 total arrests (excluding traffic arrests) with 50 sworn officers in 2012, according to Crime in Virginia reports compiled by the Department of State Police for both 2005 and 2012.
This drastic increase in caseloads has created a greater administrative workload for the Commonwealth's Attorney’s Office, a workload that Bray said necessitates additional staffing or will otherwise force further delay in the prosecution of cases and the elimination of some cases altogether.
Bray speculates that the dramatic increase in casework in the past several years could be a result of the creation of the police department’s Special Operations Unit (SOU).
The SOU was initiated in 2012 and focuses primarily on domestic violence, narcotics violations, public intoxication, gang-related activity and other quality of life issues, according to the 2012 annual report from the Colonial Heights Police Department.
Sgt. Rob Ruxer, with the police department, said that the SOU has definitely contributed to an increase in certain charges over the past couple of years because they are a “very proactive” unit, comprised of four officers, whose sole responsibility is to generate cases.
Specifically, drug possession arrests have increased from 279 in 2011 to 449 in 2013, and drug sales arrests have gone up from 89 in 2011 to 136 in 2013, according to statistics released by the police department.
Currently, the State Compensation Board funds the bulk of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office positions, with the city putting in supplemental funds for higher salaries, and the criteria the state uses to determine whether or not more staff is necessary is directly related to the number of felony defendants who are prosecuted through the court, Bray said.
Therefore, the number of misdemeanors related to crimes such as a DUI, substance abuse or domestic violence offenses doesn’t impact the State Compensation Board’s decision to fund more positions.
This is because it is optional whether or not to prosecute misdemeanors, even though some misdemeanors deserve more judicial attention than others, Bray said.
“There are so many cases we handle that we are not compensated for,” Bray said.
In the past few weeks, the Commonwealth's Attorney’s Office has begun minimizing the prosecution of driving on suspended license charges (except for more serious cases such as those involving DUIs or numerous prior offenses), to create time for more important cases, Bray said.
“We have stacks of [suspended license charges] ... [but] I don’t think it’s worth our time,” Bray said.
In addition to a lack of administrative positions necessary to compensate for the increased workload, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office is using a case management system that is outdated and harbors a multitude of complications and inefficiencies which hinder the case filing process.
Installed in 2002, Colonial Heights has been using the Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Information System, an old software program that has remained unchanged in the last 12 years, Bray said.
“All of the [Commonwealth’s Attorney’s] offices [in the state] are transitioning out or trying to transition out of the system that we have,” Bray said, emphasizing that the current system also requires frequent IT maintenance.
“Not only is the software itself old, but the only guy in the state who works on it for us, who is really that familiar with it, is retiring. We simply cannot rely on it and continue to use it without risking everything going down and a disastrous data problem in the near future,” Bray said. “I don’t know how we would track our cases if this suddenly went down.”
On top of requesting for additional staffing, Bray said he has been pushing for a new case management system for multiple years, at a current cost of less than $40,000, down from $80,000 a few years back.
Bray said that many localities in Virginia, including Petersburg, have implemented a new system that works much more efficiently and scans barcodes on legal documents to upload data instantly into the system, rather than having to enter all of the information in by hand, a task that takes a “tremendous amount of time.”
“Each charge takes more time to input which in turn takes more time in court to prosecute,” said Jessica Moody, legal secretary for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
Although more charges consequently delay the prosecution of cases, the percentage of charges dropped in relation to those that end in convictions has remained around 25 percent in the last couple years, a number consistent with the rate of Chesterfield County, Bray said.
In addition to the increase in administrative paperwork related to more charges, the responsibility of scheduling circuit court trial dates is now being shifted to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office as opposed to the circuit court clerk, effective July 1.
Bray said that this does affect the work load of the attorneys’ side of the cases, but greatly burdens the secretarial positions who must input all information related to individual charges, reports and hearings into the digital case management system, therefore the need for an administrative position is higher at this time.
Bray has requested for additional staffing each year for several years. At a budget work session on April 16, Bray asked the City Council to allocate additional funds for more staffing.
Since Bray made his request before the board, the council did not make any proposals to provide additional funding in the budget to support extra administrative positions within the office.
City Manager Thomas Mattis said that he had not heard any request regarding this need for more staffing prior to the budget work session on April 16.
The City Council recently approved two new full-time and two new part-time sheriff’s deputy positions partly to meet security demands that may be necessitated through the operation of three courtrooms simultaneously at the courthouse, and voted to trim the budget to make up for a shortfall created by these new positions. The council voted on a first reading of the budget on May 13.
While charges for many crimes appear to be going up in the commonwealth’s attorney’s case management system, some of the crime rates are actually decreasing in Colonial Heights, according to statistics released by the police department.
These statistics indicate that total reported larcenies decreased from 856 in 2011 to 704 in 2013, total reported burglaries went down from 61 in 2011 to 54 in 2013 and total DUIs have decreased from 242 in 2011 to 193 in 2013.
“We are pretty well known for enforcing DUIs. A few years ago ... we had more in our city than counties 10 times the size of us did,” Ruxer said, emphasizing Colonial Heights’s reputation for apprehending DUI offenders.