Fulton held weekend court to chip away at jail overcrowding

A rash of recent deaths in the jail has put increased pressure on the county to look for solutions.
As part of an effort to address jail overcrowding, Fulton County held court at the Fulton County jail on Saturday, Sept. 30.

Credit: Dylan Jackson

Credit: Dylan Jackson

As part of an effort to address jail overcrowding, Fulton County held court at the Fulton County jail on Saturday, Sept. 30.

Representing a collective 1,500 days in custody, five Fulton County Jail detainees appeared before a Fulton judge and two will soon walk free after the county held its inaugural weekend court session on Saturday.

The first of its kind, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney held court at the jail this weekend as part of an effort to address overcrowding in the troubled jail. Ten people have died in the custody of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office this year.

One defendant in jail since Christmas Eve, who will be released as part of his sentencing on Saturday, told McBurney, “I’m just thankful, it came out of the blue and it is something I’ve been praying for.”

“The value of weekend court,” McBurney told the defendant. “A bolt out of the blue. "

Following a rash of deaths in custody, the jail and Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat have received intense scrutiny from government officials and the public. Six of the 10 deaths this year happened in August. A particularly gruesome death last September spurred the U.S. Department of Justice to open up an investigation into the facility this summer.

With too few beds, hundreds of detainees are sleeping on the floor, and county officials and activists agree: overcrowding is driving much of the violence.

To address these issues, county commissioners have approved millions of dollars in funding earmarked for renovations, equipment and staffing in recent years, and hundreds of inmates have been relocated to the Atlanta City Detention Center as part of a deal with the City of Atlanta.

Most recently, Sheriff Labat has presented a controversial multi-million plan to send inmates to private prisons out of state.

Weekend court, though, moves away from a focus on the facility.

“Once people are in the jail, it’s the county criminal justice’s responsibility to move it along,” McBurney said.

The inaugural court session wasn’t without some hiccups. The court had originally calendared more than a dozen cases but, for one reason or another, McBurney could only hear five on Saturday. The proceedings were stalled by clerical mix-ups in two cases.

And the program does have its limits. More than a third of the jail population is unindicted, meaning they have yet to be formally charged with the crime they were arrested on. Without an indictment, a defendant cannot plead in their case or request a trial and therefore cannot participate in weekend court.

Samuel Lawrence, who died in the jail last month, had not been indicted after serving seven months in the jail. He died weeks before his bond reduction hearing.

McBurney and others will take back what they learned from the pilot court session to work out what could be improved on going forward. So far, there are no concrete plans to host another weekend court session. But the intent, according to the judge, is to have regular Saturday court with a rotating cast of judges, attorneys, clerks and deputies.