Courts pack the dockets and beam in some defendants to help dig out of backlog

Danielle Ritchie, the senior deputy clerk at the Rockingham Circuit Court, now coordinates teleconferences between judges and some defendants, among many other duties.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

In the third floor courtroom, Rockingham County Circuit Judge Bruce D. Albertson worked his way through a docket of 28 criminal hearings. About a third of the way through the docket on that hot morning in late July, Albertson extended the length of one woman’s probation because she could not yet finish paying restitution she owed from a 2018 case, when she pleaded guilty to felony drug possession. 

“Look, I want you off probation, and you want to be off probation,” Albertson said. But legally, he said, he couldn’t do that until she paid the remainder of the $2,800 restitution.

The woman said she pays child support, and only works 12-20 hours per week at a Dollar Tree. She’d also been out of work for four months recently, recovering from COVID. 

“There’s not much employment where I live in Covington,” she added. 

The judge said she had agreed to a payment plan for the restitution fees two years ago, and a short back-and-forth ensued. Because the woman couldn’t yet finish paying what she owed the court, though, her probation was ultimately extended. 

Albertson said he didn’t like doing so “because it seems like, inevitably, people come back before me for violating that probation.”

The day’s other hearings only confirmed that statement – 15 of them involved probation violations, including drug use, not paying court costs, and failing to appear for previous court dates. Of the 10 hearings that The Citizen observed that day, all but one of the defendants had violated their probation.

And every repeat case compounds an already jammed docket. Courts across the Commonwealth are still playing catch-up after spending part of last year shut down, said Danielle Ritchie, senior deputy clerk. And Rockingham is no exception. Albertson, for instance, regularly has close to 30 people on his criminal dockets, as he did on that July day. Pre-pandemic, that only happened a few times a month, Ritchie said.

The court process has changed in other ways over the last 18 months. 

Some defendants speak with the judge via video conference from the Rockingham/Harrisonburg Regional Jail or Middle River Regional Jail – a new use of technology that the court implemented during the pandemic.

One of those who beamed into the court’s video system from the jail a block away had missed court-ordered drug treatment appointments and had tested positive for fentanyl and heroin. His original conviction was for grand larceny in 2014 – he had just been released from prison in January of this year and “got off to the wrong start,” he said.

The defendant said he had a job lined up for whenever he was released: building a barn with his stepfather. He said he planned to seek help from the Community Services Board for substance abuse. In the end, Albertson ordered him to serve six months of a previously suspended sentence, and to be on probation for two more years after his release – during which time he isn’t to imbibe alcohol, marijuana, or illegal drugs. 

“I need you to stay clean. You’re using very dangerous drugs,” Albertson said. “Fentanyl is killing people.” 

Ritchie said setting up those video conferences has made work “a lot more time consuming” for her and the three other clerks who keep the court running from behind the scenes. Her typical morning begins with typing up the docket for the judge presiding that day. 

The majority of defendants are represented by court-appointed attorneys, and their cases almost always end in an agreed disposition – also known as pleading guilty, Ritchie said. Court-appointed attorneys, who are assigned to defendants who cannot afford their own lawyers, are typically capped at earning $445 per circuit court case where the person is charged with a minor felony and $1,235 where the person is charged with a major felony. 

Thus, regardless of how committed an individual attorney might be to their client’s best interest, the court doesn’t incentivize them to spend any more time than necessary on most cases, and guilty pleas speed up the process of a case. 

Of the 10 hearings The Citizen witnessed in July, only eight of the defendants were present – and all eight had pleaded guilty to their original charges.

Ritchie said when a probation violation lands someone back in front of a judge, the first encounter is called a “probable cause” hearing, which is usually initiated by the probation officer. There, the judge determines if there is enough information to substantiate the alleged violation. Then a second court date is set for a “hearing on the merits,” at which time the defendant is found guilty or not guilty of the violation, and if guilty, sentenced to jail time or an extension to their probation.

When a person is charged with a new crime, Ritchie said that hearing is called a “disposition.” By that hearing, she said, there’s usually a written agreement between the Commonwealth Attorney’s office and the defendant, detailing the crimes to which the defendant will plead guilty.

In the rare cases in which a plea deal is not reached, Ritchie explained, the case goes to a bench or jury trial.

Down in her office on the courthouse’s ground floor and surrounded by stacks of blue and beige manila folders, Ritchie spoke with The Citizen in bursts, in between answering defendants’ questions regarding court fees and listening to the other clerks hypothesize about who would show up for court that day and who would have a clean or dirty urine screen. 

Ritchie said they commonly get asked questions they can’t answer, like the judge’s opinion on a case or when a family member will be released from jail.

“In reality, we are just the keepers of the papers,” she said. Despite that, though, “we want people to succeed.” Ritchie said she enjoys seeing someone graduate from drug court or pay off their court costs. But other days are darker.

“It is sometimes hard, especially depending on the case. We get murder cases. We get cases involving children,” Ritchie said. “We just get the cases scanned and keep moving.”

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