Trial courts around the country, including those in South Carolina, were largely shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic from March 2020 through April 2021. Crime, however, continued unabated.
As a result, courts across the land must now contend with a substantial backlog. My office has developed a plan to reduce the 14th Circuit’s as quickly as we can without sacrificing just outcomes.
To hear Beaufort County’s sheriff tell it, however, this backlog is a mere figment of my imagination. In a May 17 Island Packet article detailing my plan, P.J. Tanner accused me of both creating the court backlog and intentionally inflating the numbers to extract more money out of Beaufort County Council.
He is gallingly wrong on both counts.
Google “COVID criminal backlog” and you will see numerous articles referring to “staggering criminal case backlogs” in jurisdictions throughout the county. From Seattle to Brooklyn, prosecutors face unprecedented caseloads that could take years to work through. As the news media has reported, the situation is similar in jurisdictions closer to home – Savannah, Greenville and Charleston, for instance.
Moreover, the backlog is most certainly real and its origin quite clear.
Yet, Tanner followed one false assertion with another, accusing me of deliberately deceiving Beaufort County Council and our constituents. Specifically, he claimed that I am refusing to indict cases so that I can “use those numbers to show there’s a backlog to get more money out of the council.”
That is not merely a lie. It is a remarkably ignorant one.
Every prosecutor, defense attorney and circuit court judge knows that an indictment is part of the process but never the end. The number of pending cases is composed of both indicted and unindicted cases and is reduced only by dispositions – for example, when the defendant pleads guilty or receives a jury’s verdict. Indictments do not change the number of pending cases and thus have no bearing on the size of the present backlog.
Tanner either does not understand the process or, worse, is perfectly comfortable misrepresenting it if he thinks it bolsters his argument.
Whatever the case, it is ironic that a sheriff who runs one of the state’s most expensive departments cares to argue at all about budget appropriations. He gets an allocation of nearly $32 million from Beaufort County Council. That is 17 times as much as the Solicitor’s Office. Comparing Tanner’s office to those in other coastal communities that attract a substantial number of tourists, that allocation is 40% more per capita than Horry spends on comparable law enforcement and 44% more than Charleston County.
Perhaps to do his job well, Tanner needs to be one of the most expensive sheriffs in South Carolina. I do not know. I have never been a sheriff and am not in the habit of dispensing armchair criticism on unfamiliar topics.
If only Tanner recognized the limits of his own insights, as well.