Fulton DA revives ‘Court Watch’ program to monitor repeat offenders

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

As Fulton County’s law enforcement leaders look to crack down on repeat offenders, District Attorney Fani Willis is reviving a program that encourages residents to track criminal court proceedings in their spare time.

Known as “Court Watch,” the program asks residents to monitor bond and arraignment hearings — either in person or remotely — while making note of who is let out of jail and who isn’t.

A similar program was launched in 2006 by Willis’ predecessor, former DA Paul Howard, in response to a surge of people committing additional crimes while out on bond. Sixteen years later, repeat offenders continue to pose problems for police across metro Atlanta.

Explore‘A life of crime’: Fulton officials create Repeat Offender Tracking Unit

Willis said Monday she is looking for about 250 people from across the county to sign up for the program. Volunteers will take several training courses and be given a list of defendants to monitor, she said.

“This is going to be a key part to citizens being able to hold the justice system accountable,” Willis said at a news conference outlining the plans. “They will have a first-hand view as to what is going on.”

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

In March, local law enforcement formed a unit to address what Mayor Andre Dickens called the “scourge of repeat offenders.”

The Repeat Offender Tracking Unit looks to identify those convicted of three or more felonies and track their new cases through the court system, officials said. Now, interested Fulton residents are being asked to do the same.

ExploreCourtwatchers keep an eye on justice

Authorities say felons with lengthy rap sheets often account for a disproportionate share of crime. The mayor estimated earlier this year that about 1,000 people are responsible for as much as 40% of the city’s crime.

“We catch them, we arrest them, we convict them,” Dickens said at a March news conference. “But somehow they’re back on our streets and often they’re back to criminal behavior.”

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Since taking office at the start of the year, Dickens said Atlanta’s police officers have voiced frustrations over having to arrest the same people repeatedly “just to see them back on the streets weeks or sometimes even days after wreaking havoc on our community.”

Despite job programs, diversion and counseling services aimed at reducing recidivism, the mayor said some people choose to remain involved in illegal activity. He clarified the revamped “Court Watch” program isn’t focused on low-level, nonviolent offenders, but those charged with felonies time and time again.

“There are people who make a deliberate decision to endanger our communities with violence and they need to face the consequences,” Dickens said. “The victims of these violent acts, they deserve justice.”

Atlanta police have long been frustrated by what department leaders call a “revolving door” of criminal activity. Last year, for example, a man facing a murder charge was arrested after allegedly pistol-whipping the mother of his child while out on bond. Officers arrested him after a traffic stop and foot chase. Inside his bag, police said they found a stolen pistol and two extended drum magazines, and drugs were recovered from the car he had been riding in.

The volunteers being asked to monitor these court cases won’t be paid for their time, but Willis is optimistic residents will be up to the task.

“Financially, all of our housing values will go up if crime is down, so that is the financial incentive,” she told reporters.

In previous years, many of the “Court Watch” volunteers would show up at hearings wearing specially made T-shirts, prompting some Fulton judges to feel they were being threatened in their own courtrooms. .

Willis said like her, judges are elected public officials who must to answer to the community.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Interim police chief Darin Schierbaum said many people wrongly assume the “mission is over” once an arrest has been made in a case.

“The accountability process has only just begun,” he said. “For our armed robbers, gang members and those that target our citizens ... the courtroom is where we have the optimum outcomes for safety in our city.”

ExploreAtlanta’s assistant police chief to head department amid national search

In addition to registering their security cameras with the police department and forming neighborhood watch groups, Schierbaum said re-launching the Court Watch program will create a “trifecta” of steps residents can take to help reduce crime in their communities.

Those interested in joining the program are urged to sign up at courtwatchatl.org before the first training classes are formed in August. Classes are expected to be held twice a year, and Willis said she hopes to see Fulton residents from Milton to Palmetto take part.

“At the end of the day we all want the same thing, and that’s to have safe streets,” Dickens said, “the opportunity to live in a community that’s free from violent crime.”