When Justice Is Slow, Taxpayers Pay

An estimated 55 to 60 percent of those in the Harrison County Jail have not been convicted. They're just awaiting trial. Sheriff George Payne says the it is one of the main reasons the jail is overcrowded.

There's no one reason why and no simple solution to fixing the system.

Charles Gary was 15 when he was arrested and charged with capital murder. He's now 19, and still waiting for his day in court.

"This court system is so messed up because these are the same people we vote for to be on the stand every year or whatever and it just ain't right," he said.

Gary maintains he's innocent, and says because of the delays, he's had to put his life on hold. District Attorney Cono Caranna admits four years is way too long.

"I'd like to see every case tried in 90 days," Caranna said. "I'd like to see even these special cases, that they be done in six months. I think that's a reasonable objective."

Caranna blames the defense for some of the delays in Gary's case.

"Events that were scheduled and on three occasions continued by the defense," he said.

Caranna says there are several things that could help the system, including creating a public defender program.

"A public defender has designated assistants to take care of their caseload, would be able to monitor and push that work more effectively than is being done," he said.

A recent report by the National Institute of Corrections also suggests a public defender program could help. Harrison County Sheriff George Payne asked for the study. He says the system has some glitches that need to be fixed.

"Some of these people may be innocent and then we're holding them in jail a year, two years, three years, four years and they may not have done anything," he said.

Payne has already started implementing some of the suggestions listed in the report, including buying video conferencing equipment for the jail and county courthouses to make it easier for attorneys to talk with their clients.

There is no easy way to explain why the court system works so slowly. Many of the delays are built into the system to ensure the defendant receives a fair trial. But, everyone I spoke with said it is too slow and they are working on ways to improve that.

Harrison County Supervisor William Martin presented the idea of the public defender system to the board, but so far he has not received word on how much the program might cost.