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New initiative in public defender’s office set to tackle court backlog

Published: Aug. 17, 2021 at 4:15 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 17, 2021 at 4:26 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - While a backlog of cases and trials is plaguing the court system in the Lowcountry, a new project in the Ninth Circuit Public Defender’s Office is set to begin tackling that backlog and move cases forward.

According to Ninth Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, the legislature has recently funded a new initiative that will let the public defender’s office hire more than 11 attorneys part-time to help move cases along.

Pennington said he will be able to hire seven part-time private defense attorneys in Charleston County and around four in Berkeley County. Each of these attorneys will be taking on a caseload of about 100 cases.

Pennington said these part-time attorneys can focus on less serious cases and allow his full-time public defenders to concentrate on more serious cases that are up for trial or that have arisen during COVID.

“I think it’s going to take many months for us to deal with what are the less serious matters,” Pennington said. “I think the real goal is going to be us to tackle the most serious first and find ways to work out the less serious if at all possible.”

According to Pennington, the case load for the public defender’s office in the last 18 months has grown by over 30 percent in Berkeley County and 20 percent in Charleston County.

Pennington said he expects to see an even greater caseload soon because there are thousands of people in the two counties who are out on bond but have not been able to have their initial appearance in circuit court. That’s when they go before a judge and declare who their lawyer is.

So while some defendants may have already hired private counsel, Pennington said many still need to be appointed a public defender.

“There are roughly 1,000 people being summoned in in Berkeley County this week [for initial appearances,]” Pennington said. “I would say there is roughly double that number here in Charleston County that need to come in, and those initial appearances are being set up I believe by the clerk of court in the coming months.”

According to Pennington, the Charleston County Public Defender’s Office has about 3,400 clients, and the Berkeley County Office has roughly 1,500 clients.

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