They say the wheels of justice turn slowly, and very often they do, but Guilford County is about to lose one court worker who for a quarter of a century has helped those wheels turn faster and smoother.
Wheaton Casey, the only head of Guilford County Pretrial Services that this county has ever had, helped start the program but now is stepping down.
Casey has been such an asset to the court system for two-and-a-half decades that officials in the justice system said this week they’re not sure how the court is going to get by without her once she leaves at the end of September. Casey and her staff of 14 Pretrial Services employees interview defendants, research their situations and criminal histories, and work with judges, prosecutors and district attorneys to help determine which of the accused need to be in jail and which do not. Pretrial Services also helps monitor those awaiting trial out of jail.
Guilford County District Attorney Doug Henderson said this week that he’s going to miss Casey’s service terribly and he added that, ever since he heard she’s retiring, he’s been trying hard to think of a way to get her to change her mind and stay on.
“She has been on top of the job,” Henderson said. “She’s a hard worker and she knows more about the damn intricacies of this courthouse than anybody – and I mean anybody.”
Henderson knew Casey long before either of them went to work in the justice system. He said he first met her in the ’70s when his sister brought Casey over to their house for dinner, and years later, he added, he and Casey worked together in a drug prevention program before both went to work in their current jobs.
Henderson said Casey and Guilford County Sheriff’s Department Court Liaison Sheila Hanes have worked well together to monitor the jail population.
“I guarantee you that between the two of them they have saved more than a million dollars by getting people who don’t need to be in jail out of jail.” Henderson said.
In 1988, Guilford County established a Jail Advisory Group to address the problem of jail overcrowding. A year and a half later that group came back with 21 recommendations with the highest priority being the creation of a Pretrial Services office. Guilford County funded the new service and, in July 1991, Casey helped build the program and then took the job leading it. The office was charged with two main duties: helping reduce jail overcrowding and making the court system more efficient. Pretrial officials constantly point out that maintaining public safety is a key element in what they do and they therefore must show good judgment on which defendants should await trial out of jail.
The office also works to resolve many problems before first appearances court takes place – such as pointing out the cases where there’s a mistaken identity or problems with the paperwork.
About 25 percent of the people Pretrial Services works with are repeat offenders and many of those have drug and alcohol problems or mental health issues. Pretrial Service works to connect those defendants with community organizations or mental health providers who can help them.
Casey, whose father was in the military, was born at Fort Bragg.
“It cost $7 to have me,” she said, pointing to the benefits at that time for military families.
Her family moved to Greensboro while she was young. Casey attended Page High School where she was a popular cheerleader and by all accounts highly sought after by the young men at that school. She then attended Guilford College, where she graduated with a degree in criminal justice. Her kids went to Grimsley High School, and she said that, as a Page graduate, it was hard to cheer for Grimsley.
Her other child, Guilford County’s Pretrial Services, got a reputation of being a “red-headed stepchild” at times because it was funded by the county but overseen by the state until 2011. Now the office is both funded and administered by Guilford County.
Casey likes the fact that the office has had a lot of autonomy.
“We have basically been independent for 25 years,” Casey said. “We started as a staff with four people and we’ve expanded to one with a staff of 15 with offices in both cities.”
Casey said she does believe that Pretrial Services has helped speed up court operations.
“We’ve kept the jail population flowing,” Casey said.
She said one thing that’s impressed her over the years has been all the cooperation she’s seen in the Guilford County court system. According to Casey, in some counties in the state, prosecutors and public defenders won’t even talk to each other. However, in Guilford County, she said, the judges, public defenders and prosecutors communicate freely about ways the system can be improved. She said other court systems have taken notice of the successful cooperation in Guilford County.
“I even got a call from Raleigh asking us to work with other counties where they are trying to create that spirit of cooperation, but where things had gotten so bad the parties weren’t even talking to each other,” Casey said. “Here [in Guilford County], the judges, the prosecutors, the public defenders – we’ve kind of learned how to do it.”
Pretrial Services runs a “focus group” for the Guilford County court system that includes representatives of the clerk of courts office, prosecutors, DA’s, judges, law enforcement and mental officials and others. The group attempts to work through problems and bottlenecks in the system.
“We meet every two months and just talk about the issues,” Casey said.
She said that, at the meetings, everyone states their concerns regarding the way the system is operating.
“It sounds like a bitch and moan meeting, but it’s not,” she said.
She added, “In the old days, people worked independently and they wouldn’t think about how a decision affected anybody else.”
Casey has kind words about her staff who, she said, are “overworked and underpaid,” yet continue to show up and deliver every day. She said they get in at 7:30 in the morning and, when things get hectic, as they have recently, that start time changes to 7 a.m.
“I’m not going to miss constantly feeling guilty about all that I ask the staff to do,” she said.
Casey said that, though the work can be grueling, she enjoys it.
“I love to interview people – everybody is so different,” she said.
She also said that, with Pretrial Services around, it’s a lot harder for defendants to get away with lying to a judge than it used to be. She said people would give false answers to judges’ questions and get out of jail because the judge wouldn’t have the facts at hand.
“Someone would say, ‘I have four children that I take care of; I’ve got a great job at Hardee’s and I have no prior record’ – and it’s a lie,” Casey said.
Casey won’t be the only original pretrial worker leaving county service at the end of the month. Marianne Woody, who’s worked with Casey and Pretrial Services since the program’s existence, started her job the same summer Casey did 25 years ago and is also leaving in September.
Woody said the department will lose a great deal when Casey walks out the door.
“It’s going to be a tremendous loss of expertise,” Woody said. “She’s like walking book of knowledge.”
Woody added that Casey has always had an amazing knack for getting things done once she sets her mind to it.
“She has a very strong personality,” Woody said of her colleague and friend. Wheaton is leading the way. She’s not one to say, ‘This is too hard to do – let’s not deal with it.’ She and I have not always seen eye to eye, but we have always worked through things. One of her great talents is being able to see all sides of an issue.”
Woody also said that Pretrial Services tries to always remain “neutral” – that is, the staff provides facts and calls attention to situations that the judges, prosecutors and district attorneys should know about without taking anyone’s side.
Like Casey, Woody said that in the early ’90s, the newly formed Pretrial Services recognized that many defendants who knew how to work the system were getting out of jail when they should not, while some first-time offenders who weren’t threats to society didn’t know how to act in front of a judge in first appearances court.
“They didn’t know, for instance, to bring someone with them,” she said. “Others knew the right thing to say,” she said.
Woody said one important advance that happened under Casey was the court’s implementation of video appearances. That practice speeds things up since some defendants can appear in court on video rather than be brought from the jail to the courtroom.
Woody said the remote appearance system wasn’t well accepted at first but now when the system goes down everyone is highly frustrated.
Woody also stressed the great communication in the Guilford County justice system. Woody said her husband is a parole officer who works in other counties and he said the working relationship among court officials in Guilford County is very impressive compared with that in other counties in the state.
“He said, ‘I’ve never seen the level of cooperation in the court system that you have here in Guilford County,” Woody said.
Casey also has nice words for Woody.
“Marianne, who’s retiring with me, deserves a lot of credit,” Casey said. “She has been awesome for 25 years.”
“There’s a funny story,” Casey added. “About 10 years ago, my kids were at my house and Marianne stopped by to pick up something and my kids told Marianne she had been a really good boss to me. They had no idea I was her boss. They had heard me ask Marianne if I could take vacation days several times and always thought I worked for her.”
Casey has had a statewide influence on pretrial as well. For instance, a year ago, she orchestrated a conference in Greensboro that brought in court workers from all over the state and featured a nationally renowned speaker on pretrial issues.
Casey said she wanted to thank her staff for all of their hard work, and she added that having the right people in those positions has been key.
“They have to do a lot of critical thinking,” she said. “I can’t sit over their shoulders.”
Last week, the county named Karen Moore, who has been with Pretrial Services for about a decade, the new head of the program.
Mooresaid she knows she has a hard act to follow.
“Wheaton is a visionary,” Moore said. “If something is broken, she wants to fix it. I’ve watched that creative mind go from looking at a problem to finding the right people and the best way to fix it. She’s just all about working to make this court system run better.”
Moore added, “We act as a liaison between the jail and the courts and she’s been instrumental in working with community resources and finding the people who are mentally challenged who don’t need to be in jail.”
Casey has also been very open and honest with the media when problems have surfaced in the courts, and she provided a wealth of information to the Board of Commissioners in 2007 and 2008 when the board attempted to address jail overcrowding.
Casey said she’ll miss her coworkers in the court system and the jails.
“I’d like to thank the jail staff who make it pleasant place to work and bring cooperation to the table. And I’d really like to thank the judges, DA’s and public defenders that were willing to give me their cell phone numbers and let me call on Friday night,” he said.
She said that sometimes issues would arise too late in the day to deal with in during the workday and others in the county’s court system were willing to help even at night.
“I would really like to thank the people who were willing to work outside of business hours,” Casey said.