031319_MNS_town_hall_002 Erika Shields

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields speaks during the town hall meeting the mayor hosted at the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead on Feb. 28. Shields said the Atlanta Police Department had struggled with crime in Zone 2, which includes all of Buckhead, in the previous 18 months.

The issue of Fulton County repeat offenders being released on low or no bond and committing more crimes once back on the street has been a hot topic for the past few years. But it came to a head in 2019, as residents of Buckhead, Sandy Springs and other communities continued to lobby for more changes. For that reason it's the Northside/Sandy Springs Neighbor's Newsmaker of the Year.

In February, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and other Atlanta department heads spoke at a town hall meeting at the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead, something the mayor had promised since being elected in December 2017. Though the meeting touched on a variety of topics, it was mainly about crime.

“It’s no secret. The Atlanta Police Department, we have struggled with crime in Zone 2 (which includes all of Buckhead), probably in the last 18 months,” Police Chief Erika Shields said at the meeting. “It’s gnawed away on us. We take an enormous amount of pride in what we do. What we started confronting about 18 months ago was everything seemed to revolve around cars, whether it was a stolen car or a car being broken into, a slider crime, we just found ourselves in this uphill battle.”

In March the arrest of suspect Eddie Brantley, who was accused of stealing a car in Midtown, served as a microcosm of the repeat offender issue. According to police, he had 34 prior arrests/arrest warrants issued against him totaling about 75 charges on his record.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Deputy Chief Jeff Glazier, who oversees the department’s field operations division, said in an interview. “You can imagine when we pick up these guys for violent crimes and look at their history and wonder why they’re out in the first place. How many times have they been arrested for felonies? 10, 15, 20?”

Glazier said the police often catch suspects with handguns and charge them with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, but those charges don’t often yield a high bond, so the suspect is usually released on bond.

Also in March, Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard, in an interview with the Neighbor, said there are three things the county could do to help solve the repeat offender problem, including having the court system set up a criminal division of judges and a court that only handles criminal cases. But only one of those suggestions, setting up a front-end evaluation process also known as the complaint room, was implemented.

At an October county board of commissioners meeting, officials announced a plan to monitor Fulton’s Superior Court judges as a way to address fixing the county’s justice system.

In the spotlight

The Facebook group Concerned Citizens United, which focuses on crime issues in Atlanta and beyond and has nearly 6,000 members, in early 2019 started a separate Fulton judicial accountability task force, also known as an adopt-a-judge program, in which volunteers monitor the Magistrate, Juvenile and Superior Court judges due to the repeat offender issue.

However, observing all of these judges’ cases was unrealistic because most of Concerned Citizens’ members work during the week, Amber Connor, one of the group’s co-founders, said in an interview. But the group is still monitoring judges in some cases.

“Usually (it’s) business as usual until we make a big stink or until someone who has a long record is rearrested and either the (Atlanta) Police Foundation, APD, sheriff’s (office) or the media brings up the fact that (for example) this is the 36th time this person has been arrested and they only stayed in jail a couple of days. Then the DA’s office will contact us about coming to participate in court watch,” Connor said, adding some of Concerned Citizens’ members are crime victims. “Then, when judges see members of the community are there, they will be more steadfast in their decision making when it comes to evaluating the person in front of them rather than doing the same thing over and over.”

She also said the group has been aided by the foundation, which has compiled a scorecard on how each Fulton Superior Court judge handled repeat offender cases from 2017 and 2018. Connor added one reason repeat offenders are being released on low or no bond is a federal mandate that caps the inmate population at the Fulton County Jail’s four facilities at 2,500.

Though the mandate could not be confirmed by the sheriff’s office, which manages the jail, Connor said it was an agreement that continued even after the federal consent order the jail was under regarding its conditions starting in 2006 was lifted in 2015.

“What I’ve found over the last 2½ years is there are many catalysts that cause this issue and many reasons people point fingers in all directions,” she said. “It comes down from a federal mandate and it’s a ripple effect that comes down from that mandate, and it’s happening not just in Atlanta but everywhere.”

Connor said the county is fined if it goes over the inmate cap, so to avoid the fines, judges will release suspects into the hands of a probation officer to keep them out of jail until their trials. That option can be a problem, she said, because some suspects’ criminal records can be reset through probation so judges can only see what’s on their record since it was reset.

Possible solutions

The group’s leaders also recommended some minor changes to the justice system, mainly by having the Magistrate Court judges handle the non-complex, or nonviolent, cases and the Superior Court judges take on the complex, or violent, cases, as they were designed to.

Connor said better communication between all involved departments is needed to help solve the problem.

She added another solution for juvenile repeat offenders is to put them in a rehabilitation program that assesses any learning disabilities they have, requires them to get their GED and learn a trade before leaving.

Fulton Superior Court Chief Judge Robert McBurney said in an interview the justice system is making progress in fixing the repeat offender issue but still has a long way to go.

“If we rewound to 15 years ago, it would be accurate to say because caseloads were high, Superior Court asked Magistrate Court to help with initial appearances, and Magistrate Court handles those cases,” he said. “If we fast forward to now, because of closer efforts to pay attention to repeat offenders, the magistrate court judges are not permitted to set bond in cases such as murder, rape and child molestation.

“Magistrate Court helps out with repeat offenders two ways. One, they handle all the initial appearances, whether it’s repeat offenders or first-time offenders. What we’ve changed over the last couple of years, as we’ve been more thoughtful about repeat offenders, is if the person is there because of a serious violent offense, (the Magistrate Court judges) can say what they’re charged with, but they can’t set bond. That has to go to a Superior Court judges.”

McBurney said the Superior Court judges have taken other steps to help solve the repeat offender issue.

“One, we are paying much more attention to the credentials and qualifications of third-party providers (programs you go to for rehab),” he said.

McBurney was referring to the July 2018 murder of Christian Broder in historic Brookhaven in which the main suspect in that case, Jayden Myrick, 17, was released to the supervision of a program that no longer existed, allowing him to roam free.

“Second, we are investing more time and energy and resources into our accountability courts, something the (previous) governor (Nathan Deal) championed, and they’re designed to get those repeat offenders who suffer from addiction, mental illness or both back on their feet in a way that prison never has and never will,” he said, later adding treatment, not jail time, is the answer for repeat offenders who are mentally ill and have been found guilty of only minor crimes.

“Third, we have realized that we lack information … about a juvenile’s interaction with law enforcement. Juvenile delinquency records are appropriately kept fairly confidential, but that makes it hard for a judge, Magistrate or Superior Court, who is considering whether to grant bond for a 17-year-old who’s charged with burglary, for that judge to know what that person has been up to in previous years. … That’s a problem because folks will say (a suspect has) no adult criminal history, which is a true statement, but when you were 16 years old, you’ve had five burglaries on your record, If I know that, I’m not going to be excited about giving you a bond.”

Who’s to blame?

Many of the leaders of the county’s justice system have in the past pointed fingers at other departments, saying they’re not the only ones to blame.

“I think the only time you’re going to look at the police department for any type of negative (issue is) … if you have a poorly written report or an officer missing his court date (to testify),” Glazier said. “We address those quickly with strong discipline. There’s two parts to the repeat offenders (judicial process): the initial hearing and then there’s the trial. We bring judges to the carpet.

“(Nine) months ago there was an individual who was spraying an apartment building with an assault rifle. He walked up to an apartment complex in Zone 3 and opened fire. We captured him and in short order he was back out.”

He was referring to the case of Ahmad Coleman, a suspect who was arrested in April on 24 charges related to that March incident and released in May on a pretrial release signature bond. In October he was arrested in Mississippi after allegedly being one of two suspects who in August shot four college students at a block party near the Atlanta University Center library.

Glazier also said about 90% of cases don’t go to trial, so what happens with suspects after they are arrested is out of the police’s control and in the hands of the district attorney’s office and judges.

McBurney said the focus shouldn’t be on who is to blame but on treating the issue as “a learning opportunity.”

“I think it is bad policy to criticize partners in the justice system because there is an unhappy outcome in a given situation,” he said. “I think we ought to learn from unhappy outcomes. If bond is given and it doesn’t turn out well, we should look at this candidate and find out why this person got bond.

“Sometimes it’s a total surprise. He has no criminal history, he’d been working and this was his first arrest. Lo and behold, he gets out on bond and kills someone. Then you have the situation like the Capital City (Club) murder and that one is still harder to defend. But we still need to learn from the decisions that were made.”

At the town hall meeting, Shields said part of the blame lies with the Magistrate Court judges who release suspects on low or no bond. In response, Cassandra Kirk, that court’s chief judge, issued a statement.

“The situation is not as simple as the police chief portrays. The issuance of bonds relies heavily on the sworn testimony and information presented during the hearing by (the) state and the defense. Judges are prohibited from investigating cases.

“This means that judges cannot conduct their own research on cases pending before them and must rely on the proper parties to bring forth relevant information, such as criminal histories, police reports and pretrial recommendations. I look forward to collaborating on process improvements with all stakeholders.”

Some of the blame has been aimed at the county for not providing more funding to help the judges with their high caseloads by adding more judges or staff members. But McBurney said only the state Legislature can give Fulton more judges by passing a new law.

“We could use another judge,” he said. “I don’t want to blame the volume. What we need as a society is more resources to help treat the mentally ill and those suffering from addiction. And until we’re willing to invest in that, we’re going to have more repeat offenders because you can’t jail your way out of these situations.”

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