By Maggie Lee
Fulton’s top elected official has said the county’s main jail has people who don’t belong there. But some Atlantans say some Fulton judges are cutting too many people loose. And then there are also activists who say Fulton is contributing to mass incarceration.
Everybody talking about criminal justice in Fulton should find something of interest soon — that is, when the county starts publishing new, detailed statistics on courts.
It’ll be the most in-depth look inside any metro Atlanta county court system.
It comes as Fulton County is trying to grapple with a jail population that’s above the rate in some comparable counties.
“Today we have 295 people per 100,000 people in Fulton County in the Fulton County Jail,” said Fulton County Deputy COO for Public Safety Alton Adams, speaking to the county commission on Wednesday.
Compare that to Wayne County, Michigan — which includes Detroit — at 95 people per 100,000 population. Or Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where the rate is 136 people per 100,000 population. Or Harris County, Texas which includes Houston: 188 people.
As Adams put it, it’s a systemic issue.
“The challenges began from the initial booking process, which is a bit too manual, all the way through case management. And then finally to the adjudication of individuals that are going through our system,” Adams said.
Part of fixing this, in the short term, he said, is to provide more transparency and data about the the system.
So the data “dashboards” that the county is putting together will keep track of things like how long it takes to dispose of say, felonies, misdemeanors, general civil cases. And they will track judges’ caseloads, and how long defendants are in jail. Case disposition statistics will be compared to national standards that have been endorsed by various organizations for judges, court administrators and lawyers.
Alton said information from those dashboards will be incorporated into the county’s new website in the first quarter of 2020.
But here’s the thing with statistics: it’s hard to get everybody to agree on them.
Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Robert C. I. McBurney the told commissioners on Wednesday that part of the reason why the draft dashboards don’t have real data in them yet is because the courts are working with the county manager to make sure that “data” is turned into “information,” the kind of information that would inform public decisions or concerns.
McBurney’s point: a number might have more than one explanation.
He gave a hypothetical: imagine he has 20 cases where inmates are in jail. It could be that those folks have been sentenced, but just haven’t been picked up yet by the state Department of Corrections. That makes it the state’s fault, not the judge’s fault. Or it could be that the judge hasn’t held a hearing in nine months and hasn’t been doing their work.
“I appreciate the pressure you’re putting on this,” McBurney told commissioners. “But I would ask you to let us turn the data into information.”
Commissioner Liz Hausmann brought up some of the same points: she asked that the data show how many folks go into accountability courts, probation or counseling.
“But I fully support us being transparent with the public about how we’re handling our caseload,” Hausmann said, but there are all kinds of reasons why a case may languish that are out of the control of a judge.
Adams said that her point was well taken and that the dashboards would look at information through the whole process, including the actions of prosecutors and public defenders.
The Fulton County Commission discussion came just before the publication of a report from the Atlanta Repeat Offender Commission, a body made up of senior representatives from many stakeholders in the criminal justice system, including law enforcement and judges.
The report contains a detailed scorecard of Superior Court and Magistrate Court judges’ sentencing records of repeat offenders in the city of Atlanta in 2017 and 2018. It defines repeat offenders as those who have three or more prior felony convictions.
In 2017 and 2018, 23% of city of Atlanta repeat offenders were sentenced to confinement by Fulton County Superior Court judges — a decrease of nearly 14 points from the 37% who were sentenced to confinement in 2016, according to the report.
The report is meant to serve as a baseline of data, statistics, findings and recommendations designed to encourage additional dialogue and engagement by the public, news media, and each of the agencies involved in the judicial process.
But county commissioners are hearing at least one thing uniformly: they’re hearing from from constituents who want data that’s as detailed as legally possible and want it as soon as possible.