Fulton, others worried about spending millions on COVID-19 court backlog

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Thousands of people are sitting in Fulton County’s jail hoping the county can do whatever it takes to clear the backlog of 11,000 criminal cases, so they can have their day in court.

Officials said they would begin reducing the backlog with $60 million of the roughly $200 million in federal COVID-19 relief money the county expects to receive.

But now, it seems, that money might be off limits in addressing one of the county’s biggest and most pressing problems.

The U.S. Department of Treasury weeks ago released more than 100 pages of guidance for legal uses of the federal stimulus funds. Nothing in the document explicitly approves using the money for backlogs caused by officials shutting down courts to curb spread of the virus.

Acting county attorney Kay Burwell said Wednesday she expects to hear back within days about whether Fulton can use the federal money on the backlog, but she did not say how she would be notified. Fulton would be making a $60 million gamble by using the money to address the problem without a blessing from federal officials.

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When asked for comment, a county spokeswoman said: “Our attorneys are working through this now and until it is resolved we don’t believe we can comment on the potential use of those federal dollars.”

Fulton isn’t the only one who noticed the lack of direction regarding the courts.

Eryn Hurley, associate legislative director with the National Association of Counties, said she’s heard concerns from a few counties, including in Arizona and Utah, about not being able to use the money to clear court cases.

Representatives with NACo have been talking to Treasury officials, who aren’t expected to update the official guidance until 60 days after the public comment period ends July 16, according to a NACo spokesman. That means Fulton wouldn’t hear for sure until mid-September.

Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis said that won’t work for her.

“We will not be able to able to service the people that were affected by crimes — whether they are victims, the witnesses or accused — if we don’t get extra resources,” she said.

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Willis said the backlog was created by a “trifecta” of problems: the coronavirus court shutdown, a surge in violent crime and having 4,000 pending cases (some dating back to 2016) when she took office.

Not all counties are going to experience this in the same way.

The DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office at the end of May had 1,637 cases pending grand jury presentment, according to DeKalb DA spokeswoman Yvette Jones. DeKalb has budgeted $2.1 million to clear that backlog.

“Nobody is in the shape we’re in because frankly no one is as big as us,” Willis said.

Willis said she could hire 30 people right now if she had the money. That would literally mean some people could get out of the over-crowded jail sooner, she said.

“I don’t have any more additional budget that I can apply to acquiring talent, so I have no more personnel budget at the end of June,” she said.

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There’s also a timing issue. Law requires Georgia courts to grant bond if the suspect hasn’t been indicted within 90 days of the arrest.

Willis recently said there are 160 people in the jail unindicted on murder. “If they’re not indicted, then they’re able to get out,” she said.

The sheriff said in March that half of the jail population had been indicted.

“I’m not over here dealing with widgets,” Willis said. “We are literally standing on the brink of keeping the community safe.”

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