WARNER ROBINS -- Houston County State Court Judge Jason Ashford is touting strides made in 2011, including reducing a trial backlog.
Ashford, who was sworn in Jan. 3, 2011, after winning the judgeship in the November 2010 election, outlined the progress he said was made in State Court in a news release issued Wednesday.
“We’ve accomplished a lot,” Ashford said by telephone. “But we still have a lot more to do.”
A key accomplishment highlighted by Ashford was a substantial step in decreasing a jury trial backlog of more than 1,200 cases down to 800. A record of 41 jury trials was set in 2011, which was almost twice the number tried in 2010 and 2009 combined, he said.
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While the reduction is progress, Ashford said, his long-term goal is the resolution of a case within an average of four months from ticket or arrest to trial, dismissal or plea. With the understanding that some cases may take longer and some less time, Ashford said four months is a reasonable amount of time in general to dispose of most misdemeanor cases the court handles. He said some cases had been backlogged as much as two or three years.
“That’s been my No. 1 focus to deal with: the backlog and get cases that have been stagnant moving,” Ashford said. “One way or another, I want it resolved in four months.”
He noted that State Court isn’t dealing with murders, rapes or child molestations handled in Superior Court. He said State Court deals mostly with traffic cases, misdemeanor domestic violence and “things like that.”
State Court Solicitor Amy Smith, who was sworn into office in July, said she agrees the past year has seen some accomplishments in State Court, with the most prominent being the reduction in the case backlog, she said.
“We certainly tried more cases last year than tried in recent history,” Smith said. “That does, in turn, decrease the backlog.”
Smith characterized Ashford’s goal of an average of four months to dispose of a case as “admirable.”
“I don’t think it’s too ambitious,” Smith said. “It’s like anything else. It doesn’t go from one situation to another overnight. It takes some time.”
Smith, who previously served as a prosecutor for the Houston County District Attorney’s Office, as did Ashford, was appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to fill a vacancy created by the June 30 resignation of Rob Tawse, who had held the post for 12 years.
Improved security by the addition of keycard access for staff and having a deputy on hand for courtroom security during heavy court days are among other changes outlined by Ashford.
Also, a new State Court website was created for the public to download forms, pay fines and check the status of pending cases, he said.
In addition, DUI sentencing was revamped, and the criminal fine structure was revised. Also, offenders are now required to reimburse the state for taxpayer-funded defense counsel, Ashford said.
On civil cases, the hiring of a part-time law clerk has aided in moving cases that had been inactive for some years, Ashford said. Older cases have been resolved by requiring mediation, and new cases are subject to a scheduling order to move cases through, he said.
A long-term goal for the State Court clerk’s office is to go paperless, Ashford said. He believes such a move will make case processing more efficient.
State Court Clerk Kendra H. Simons said she’s “onboard with any and all changes the judge wants for State Court” -- including going wireless.
“We’re definitely going to try,” said Simons, who was sworn in Nov. 1. “I’m looking forward to it and a little nervous at the same time because it’s a big change.
“Once all the kinks are worked out, it will be a good thing,” said Simons, who was tapped by Deal to replace former longtime Clerk Gay Valasky, who retired in October.
Ashford noted that accomplishments were possible because of the cooperation of those involved in State Court.
Smith noted, “We’re all working toward the same goals.”
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.