BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – District Attorney General Barry Staubus has a desk full of cases and so do his assistant DAs. The docket is full and the courtrooms in Sullivan County are only getting busier.

During the novel coronavirus pandemic — especially at its genesis — the Tennessee Supreme Court mandated that cases that could be reset, go ahead and be reset.

That was done for the protection of those who would have to appear in court, as well as court workers.

Northeast State Community College Criminal Justice Professor Eric Stanton gave an example of how this move impacted the criminal justice system, which is comprised of law enforcement, corrections, probation and parole, and the courts, all of those are working together.

“I just picked up this person for simple possession of marijuana,” Stanton said. “So in the past, I may have arrested that individual, but now I’ll just give him or her a citation in lieu of continued custody, and they can come to court once the pandemic is over and settle the charges. And so that is a lot of what we saw during the pandemic happen in order to ease the burden on the system.”

Stanton explained that the resulting effect in some larger jurisdictions could be felt for years to come. He said issues felt within the system aren’t necessarily linked to increased crime but just the lingering impacts of the pandemic.

“So now our judges are having to make the very tough decision on who gets sent to jail, who gets sent to prison, versus those that might be given alternative sentencing like probation or something of that nature,” Stanton said. “So that is another issue we’re seeing, but it’s my understanding, it’s not necessarily [an] uptick on crime, it’s just returning to a post-COVID world and trying to get back to normal.”

Staubus said the four general sessions and two criminal courts in Sullivan County have felt that strain, especially in 2022.

He said cases could slip through the cracks.

“What we want to do is protect the public, and we want to hold people accountable for crimes they committed,” Staubus said. “We want to deter crimes, but no matter what system you have, with the kind of caseloads and the real lack of manpower we have, those things could happen [in] any district attorney’s office anywhere.”

Staubus said an increase in drug overdoses has been reported in Sullivan County, and Stanton had an idea as to why.

“It’s just like our cell phones; whenever they come out with a newer cell phone, we want the latest and greatest,” Stanton said. “And it’s the same thing with drugs. People demand a stronger more potent type of drug to get that high. And as a result, these dealers and manufacturers of the drugs are willing to do that, to give the people what they want.”

In Sullivan County, Staubus said drug crimes are becoming a bigger and bigger problem.

“Even the methamphetamine that we see today is much stronger, more powerful, and cheaper than what we have,” Staubus said. “And fentanyl is deadly, and we’ve seen a lot of gangs that are bringing just huge magnitudes of drugs in our region, and all that stuff creates the kind of environment that we have in our criminal justice system.”

Data shows drug crimes are up in Sullivan County, according to statistics from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office.

Year (1st Quarter)
Drug crime-related offenses in Sullivan County, Tennessee. Source: TBI & SCSO

“Some drugs on the street today are thousands upon thousands times more potent than the drugs that we saw 20, 30, 40 years ago on the streets, much more potent, much more legality, stuff of that nature,” Stanton said. “So as a result, some folks using are dying and stuff of that nature, and if they can link back to whoever sold that individual the drugs, then obviously that person’s looking at a very serious felony.”

With a COVID-19 backlog making the docket burst at the seams and more deadly drugs circulating, further serious charges are adding gasoline to the fire.

“It’s like a perfect storm of events. Not only COVID increased crime already, but then we have just the severity of the drug problem. That really is the driver of most of the crimes,” Staubus said.

Staubus said he can feel the types of crimes he is prosecuting become more serious.

“We’ve seen the last two years more violent crimes, more homicides than I can remember since I’ve been a district attorney,” he said. “I think we’ve seen more murders in the last couple of years than we’ve seen [in] a long time. We also see an uptick in shootings, juvenile shootings, more serious charges that they’re charged with.”

Stanton explained that some small jurisdictions like Carter and Unicoi County have caught up or nearly caught up with the judicial backlog caused by the pandemic, but many larger jurisdictions are still struggling along with fewer and fewer workers to tackle the cases in court.