Buckhead crime task force offers a wealth of information and questions about underlying causes
By John Ruch
The quality of public conversation about an issue is often in inverse proportion to its political importance, and there is no better example than Atlanta crime. The top issue of the past three years has often spoken the languages of shouty activists, photo-op politics, national-party talking points laundered through state legislators, police and courts beefing with each other like the gangs they target, and TV news satisfied with showing you helicopter footage of the roof of a house where someone died horrifically.
Such sound and fury have been loudest and most furious in Buckhead, so it’s both surprising and refreshing that it’s become the home of a uniquely substantive, solutions-oriented conversation. The Buckhead Public Safety Task Force, established earlier this year by District 8 City Councilmember Mary Norwood, is a cornucopia of information about what the criminal justice system is up to. As it wraps up this month with the aim of issuing recommendations in May, the task force’s wealth of detail bodes well for a citywide version that Post 3 At-Large Councilmember Keisha Waites soon will launch.
The just-missed candidate in two bitter mayoral elections, Norwood is a figure who attracts divided political opinions, but no one can question her ability to run a meaningful meeting. Valerie Sellers, a former Atlanta Police sergeant, is the task force chair, as she also headed a public safety subcommittee of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods (BCN) when Norwood led that group. But like the BCN, the task force is steered by Norwood’s commands to start on time, end on time, and in between cram in an agenda packed with detailed information.
At its latest meeting on April 7, the task force heard from chief judges of various Atlanta and Fulton courts, a species of official used to hearing themselves talk without interruption. Norwood repeatedly urged them to focus on concise recommendations rather than court flowcharts. The task force, she declared, will produce an “action report rather than 60 pages of information no one ever reads.”
Of course, there are plenty of political agendas and info gaps in the process, which leans toward the crackdown approach. But with various agencies meeting in the same virtual room, the heat is lower and the analysis is deeper. There’s also breathing space for such sobering admissions as factors to today’s impulsive, sometimes particularly bizarre violent crime that may go beyond the criminal justice system’s powers — a kind of mass psychosis knocking screws loose all over the place.
While police staffing, training and funding were signal debate points from 2020 onward, the fact is that Atlanta, Fulton and state police were making plenty of arrests in the crime wave. A core problem was the rest of the system being impacted by the pandemic, with courts shuttered and jails overcrowded.
The felony case backlog
Christopher Brasher, chief judge of Fulton County Superior Court, gave a sobering report about the lingering backlog of felony cases, saying he’s hoping for “no more COVID setbacks… Because if we start tomorrow at full capacity, it’s going to take four years for us to get through this.”
Brasher said the Superior Court already had a backlog in early 2020, before the pandemic. About a third of the backlog has moved through the system since then, he said. But there are still about 12,000 felony cases awaiting review by a grand jury. “So that represents basically three years of cases that are backlogged [and] waiting indictment,” he said.
The Fulton County District Attorney’s office is running two grand juries to churn through the backlog with the hope of processing 9,000 of those cases this year. Don Geary, the D.A.’s legal counsel, told the task force that “we are not currently on pace for our 9,000,” but are ramping up enough that he believes the goal can still be met.
Brasher noted that the county received federal funds to increase the court system’s capacity by 25 percent for three years to deal with the backlog. While he expected it to be “at full bore” by now, it is not, with one issue being staffing problems during the “Great Resignation.” However, Brasher said he remains optimistic because of those resources and improved cooperation among prosecutors and police agencies.
Other court systems are in different positions. “We are having the same capacity issues,” said Cassandra Kirk, chief judge of the Fulton Magistrate Court, which handles first appearances and preliminary hearings. But she also reported an 84 percent closure rate on cases from 2019 to this year.
Juliette Scales, chief presiding judge of the Fulton Juvenile Court, said her system has no backlog. Christopher Portis, chief judge of Atlanta Municipal Court, noted his system went back into operation in October 2020 and now has fewer cases than usual — about 150,000 a year compared to about 200,000 pre-pandemic, though the load increased 30 percent this quarter.
Zero tolerance and unsecured release
Echoing a concern of many law-and-order types, Portis said his main concern is the lingering perception — based on something of an early reality — that you can get away with just about anything thanks to pandemic court chaos. He said the “messaging individuals are hearing… [is that] there is a belief at the current moment that for low-level offenses, there will be no penalty and no interaction with the court system. We are trying to push back on that.”
That includes a “zero-tolerance program” for those who fail to appear in court for trial for all cases, the majority of which are traffic-related. That’s because the court did in fact put a hold on failure-to-appear charges at the height of the pandemic, which coincided with an epidemic of street racing and stunt driving that is a major source of public complaints about safety and quality of life. “We’re now rolling that back… ” Portis said of such leniency.
The judges also addressed some major concerns of Norwood and other public safety advocates: whether judges allow jail overcrowding concerns to affect their sentencing and bonding decisions, and whether too many repeat offenders get out almost immediately after arrests on “unsecured release,” meaning their own recognizance.
Brasher did not directly answer a question about jail capacity’s impact on sentencing but made it clear he’s aware of the situation by raising it himself. He said the county jail was at capacity in 2020 and is now over capacity by about 700 inmates. And while about 90 percent of inmates had been indicted — meaning formally charged and ready for trial — in 2020, he said, only about 40 percent are now. He noted that the last time jail capacity was so high, federal government oversight was imposed to improve conditions. Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat previously told the task force that he has transferred 200 inmates to Cobb County and might send 100 more there, while also working on a controversial deal to use 500 beds in the Atlanta City Detention Center.
As for unsecured release, Portis said that’s a concern of his and a “big driver” of repeat offenders in his courts. He noted that requiring someone to post bond or stay in jail is a “very serious judicial function” because on the one hand, “it’s a means to punish before punishment is appropriate,” but on the other is a way to ensure a defendant doesn’t “simply go out and re-offend while a case is pending.” On City traffic violations, he said, police can release the accused themselves on a so-called signature bond “carte blanche” with no judicial oversight. Portis said his office is “taking a very serious look” at possible state law changes about getting a judge involved in such releases.
Culture clashes and underlying causes
While much of the commentary focused on pandemic cleanup, Brink Dickerson, chair of Buckhead’s Neighborhood Planning Unit A, noted that police complained about the courts long before COVID. Brasher was diplomatic in acknowledging that culture clash.
“First of all, I’m not going to be so presumptuous to say that either perspective is wrong,” said Brasher. “I think the reality is, law enforcement gets frustrated with the courts, and let’s be honest, the courts get frustrated with law enforcement.”
He said he understands that it can be frustrating for police officers to see someone released on bond after an arrest, “especially if they had to work very hard or put themselves in harm’s way to do that.” And he acknowledged that the felony cases that go to trial often take weeks to resolve due to their complexity.
Brasher also gave some very judge-like advice that pertains to all crime discussions, suggesting “that it is the perspective of the speaker that should be taken into consideration when you hear what their complaint is.”
MARTA Police Department Chief M. Scott Kreher, who started his job in 2020 after years as an Atlanta Police deputy chief, returned the diplomacy, saying about the courts, “I have nothing bad to say about them.” But he also suggested a kind of madness on the streets that challenges the entire system.
“…I feel like we kind of danced around this in this discussion. We had a homicide while I was on this call,” said Kreher, referring to a fatal shooting outside MARTA’s Five Points Station. “An individual lost his life. And looking at the video, the individual slapped the suspect in the back of the head and walked off, and the suspect turned around and walked up and shot him — killed him right there.”
“So I really think we need to look at the underlying causes of these [violent crimes],” Kreher continued. He indicated that better cooperation between law enforcement and courts is good. “But when you see violence like that, I don’t know what the solution is…”