Northwest Library
Some patrons of the Northwest Library at Scotts Crossing said they try to remain vigilant of their surroundings when walking in the neighborhood, including a stroll to a nearby convenience store. Credit: David Pendered

By David Pendered

Some Atlanta residents who track crime are returning their attention to a report that portrays Fulton County judges as lenient on repeat offenders. Early criticism of the report dwelled on a perceived shortcoming of not being robust enough to inform a meaningful conversation of sentencing reform.

Northwest Library
Some patrons of the Northwest Library at Scotts Crossing said they try to remain vigilant of their surroundings when walking in the neighborhood, including a stroll to a nearby convenience store. Credit: David Pendered

Gov. Brian Kemp reignited the review of the Atlanta Repeat Offender Commission’s report with his State of the State speech.

In his speech, Kemp focused on what he called “criminal street gangs” and continued a message he delivered in a Jan. 8 column published in The Augusta Chronicle – in which he said gangs in Georgia now claim 71,000 members.

In his State of the State address, delivered Jan. 16, Kemp’s prepared remarks observe:

  • “Criminal street gangs continue to grow in size and scope, impacting every county in every part of our state. These organized crime units are flooding our streets with weapons, drugs, violence, and fear. They are ripping apart the fabric of our communities. They are eroding the foundations of our families.”

With the governor sending this message on crime, some are taking another look at the findings released Oct. 4, 2019 by the Atlanta Repeat Offender Commission. The issue of public safety is the common theme of the speech and report, though neither links repeat offenses with criminal gangs.

The commission is housed in the Atlanta Police Foundation. The commission was chartered in April 2014 to examine the prosecution and sentencing of repeat offenders with an eye toward providing, “judicial fairness to defendants and greater protection to the citizens of Atlanta from individuals who repeatedly are convicted of criminal behavior.”

The report includes what it calls “judicial scorecards.” They are summaries of the sentences issued by each judge for each case involving a repeat offender. The discussion last autumn included whether these raw numbers are useful without details on how the judge reached a sentencing determination.

The report laid out its case for the contention that repeat offenders represent a special risk in Fulton County. Here are the top five points:

repeat offender, chart
Drug-related charges comprise the largest category of charges and include possession of more than 1 ounce of marijuana, or the array of narcotics and other schedule drugs. Credit: Atlanta Repeat Offender Commission
  • “Approximately 18 percent of felony cases adjudicated in Fulton County Superior Court in 2017 and 2018 were committed by ROs [repeat offenders];
  • “In 2017 and 2018, 23 percent of City of Atlanta repeat offenders were sentenced to confinement by Fulton County Superior Court judges – a decrease of nearly 14 percent from the 37 percent who were sentenced to confinement in 2016;
  • “In 2017 and 2018, 22 percent of repeat offenders were carrying firearms when they committed the most recent crime for which they were convicted;
  • “Sentencing variability of convicted ROs to confinement ranged from a low of 10 percent to a high of 48 percent – an alarming range of judicial discretion in sentencing a population of individuals who have three or more prior felony convictions;
  • “The most common sentence imposed by judges for ROs in 2017 and 2018 was “time served,” applied in 37 percent of cases. This represents the time a defendant spends in jail awaiting trial. In Fulton County, this averages 95 days, for a felon convicted of his/her fourth felony.”

These statistics informed a number of observations that followed, including:

  • “Repeat Offenders are demonstrably the most dangerous individuals in society, regularly preying on innocent citizens, with seemingly no remorse as evidenced by their repeated criminal actions.
  • “Their repeated criminal actions demonstrate that they are impervious to leniency afforded by lesser sentences than confinement. Judges, however, seemingly act as if further leniency might somehow reform repeat offenders ‐‐ despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. …
  • “Repeat offenders who persist in carrying a firearm in the commission of a crime present a serious, arguably imminent risk to the public. Their serial criminal acts demonstrate that sentencing leniency has failed to mitigate their behavior.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written...

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