LUMBERTON — Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt felt he needed to do more than just tell municipal leaders how bogged down the local courts are.
Britt wanted to show them as well.
Armed with court calendars from each of the six towns that hold District Court, Britt said that just this week there have been a total of 1,187 criminal cases scheduled to be heard.
“That’s just a week in criminal court in Robeson County,” Britt said. “We’re overwhelmed. We don’t have the capacity to handle these cases and we didn’t have the capacity to handle the cases we already had.”
Britt spoke Thursday night to about 30 members of the Robeson County Municipal Association at the Village Station restaurant. Britt painted a dire picture of the county’s court system and did not seem to hold out much promise for improvements any time soon.
Britt provided a breakdown by towns of the number of criminal cases in District Court this week: Lumberton, 365 cases; Fairmont, 215 cases; Red Springs, 182 cases; Pembroke, 135 cases; Maxton, 127 cases; Rowland, 84 cases; and St. Pauls, 79 cases.
There are also about 80 people charged with murder who are awaiting trial in Robeson County. In the past two weeks, there have been about 1,500 felony cases to go before the county courts.
A recent report published by the Department of Justice and the State Bureau of Investigation ranked Robeson County first in the state in overall crime rate for 2012, first in violent crime rate and third in property crime rate. It was the third straight year the county has ranked No. 1 in violent and overall crime.
Robeson County has averaged about 25 murders a year for the past decade, one of the highest rates in the state.
“Robeson County doesn’t compare to any other place in the state,” said Britt, who told the group that he was working on 30 murder cases himself. “Our defendants are getting younger and they are getting more violent.”
Britt blamed the crime problem in Robeson County on poverty and a lack of education. But he said the lack of skills to resolve problems by means other than violence is also an issue.
“The prevalence of handguns is a problem too,” Britt said. “I don’t own a gun, but if I wanted to get one, I know somewhere I can get a gun right now and the police and the sheriff wouldn’t know anything about it. When people get their hands on a gun, it emboldens them.”
Britt said it does not help that the District Attorney’s Office lacks the staff or resources to handle the ever-increasing caseload. There are 12 assistant district attorneys serving the county.
Britt urged the local leaders to pressure state lawmakers to provide more money to his office and the court system.
“What can you do as community leaders?” Britt said. “Put pressure on some people. For us to improve our criminal courts, we got to have resources from the state. That is not a secret, just something that no one wants to address. At some point, we have got to break the cycle.”
Scott Witten works for Civitas Media as the editor of The Red Springs Citizen and The St. Pauls Review.