As her fiance languished in the Fulton County Jail on misdemeanor charges for 15 days, Dorothy Freeman’s life came apart.
She fell behind on her car payment, lost the boarding house room she shared with her 4-year-old son and bounced from family to friends’ homes in search of stability. Her fiance’s status as the breadwinner meant his arrest stretched the family’s finances, but their troubles were exacerbated by an unusual policy twist at the Fulton County Courthouse.
Solicitor Keith Gammage has stopped staffing first appearances and other hearings in magistrate court, which means a critical piece of the court system’s machinery suddenly went missing. Gammage’s July 31 decision — made, according to him, because of budget constraints — has left more people at risk of spending excessive time in jail on minor arrests.
VIDEO: In other crime and justice news
Attorneys in the solicitor’s office have been responsible for prosecuting misdemeanor cases. They have filed accusations and hammered out plea deals, customary in minor cases. With them gone, that process can now take days, and sometimes weeks, where it often used to take hours.
The solicitor’s decision to stop doing that work concerns the chief judge of Fulton County’s magistrate court, who worries people’s rights have been violated.
“Without prosecutors there, judges are really hamstrung,” said Chief Judge Cassandra Kirk.
In Freeman’s case, her fiance, Richard Walthower, was arrested Sept. 16 on charges of driving with a defective taillight, giving a false name and possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. He spent 11 days in jail before an accusation was entered in the case — the misdemeanor equivalent of an indictment.
The drug charge was eventually dropped, and Walthower pleaded guilty this week to the other charges and was released on time served. Serving more than two weeks in jail on misdemeanor charges seemed unfair to Freeman, and it took both a financial and emotional toll.
“He’s the source of income,” she said. “It’s just hard.”
Gammage, who was elected in 2016, said he made the switch because his office has been overburdened by work it was not required to do under law.
He said he inherited the magistrate court duties from his predecessor, and has never formally agreed to cover that court. Over the summer, Gammage decided to focus resources on state court cases, which the law requires his office to manage, and shifted employees to ensure that work is done.
He said his office is now able to pay more attention to domestic violence, DUI and illegal firearm cases.
“I saw too many cases not being prepared the way I want them prepared,” he said.
‘Everybody on deck’
The confusion wrought by the solicitor’s move is the latest episode of dysfunction in Fulton County’s criminal justice system.
In July, the Southern Center for Human Rights warned that the public defender’s office is “stretched so thin” that many poor defendants end up convicted of crimes, or spending time in jail, because they don’t have adequate representation. The District Attorney, in August, said he couldn’t hire new attorneys because he had overspent his budget. And the sheriff’s office has had a history of problems operating the county jail, which was under a federal consent decree for more than a decade, until it was lifted in 2015.
Mary Hooks, the co-director of Southerners on New Ground, a nonprofit that advocates for bail reform, said without prosecutors present at first appearance hearings, the legal process stalls. Additionally, she said, there are no opportunities to make plea deals if solicitors aren’t at those hearings. Low-income people who can’t afford to pay bond are the most at risk.
“Who thought this was a good idea?” Hooks said. “We need everybody to be on deck. …If those steps haven’t been completed, it’s a miscarriage of justice. People are not getting their due process.”
Across the state, policies about how these first appearances and other hearings are staffed vary by county, said Peter J. Skandalakis, the executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.
When prosecutors aren’t present in magistrate court, it can have an impact, he said.
“Every stage in the criminal justice process is critical,” he said. “If we lived in a Utopian society and could cover all the courts, that would be the ideal.”
Gammage’s implementation of the policy has strained relations within the courthouse and across county government.
He didn’t alert the county commission about his budget troubles before making the change.
In a late-night email, he abruptly told Chief Judge Kirk and the magistrate court public defender’s office of the change. He acknowledged that it wasn’t ideal, but said he would be taking action, “effective immediately.” His attorneys would not be in magistrate court the next morning, Aug. 1.
Nobody knows exactly how many cases have been delayed since the policy change or what it has cost taxpayers. Housing a person in the Fulton jail costs $83.54 per day, according to the sheriff’s office. In Walthower’s case, his 15-day stay cost the county roughly $1,253.
A review of trial calendars for Fulton magistrate court since Aug. 1 shows close to 200 cases were scheduled to be heard. In some cases, people who bonded out were not impacted, but the chief judge has witnessed problems.
“People could be sitting in jail, and they should have been accused,” Kirk said. “We are concerned.”
Simultaneously, Gammage’s office stopped prosecuting code violations across the county. That decision angered some county commissioners when they learned a month later the duties were not being fulfilled. The commission had already increased Gammage’s budget to $8.6 million in 2018, a 26 percent increase from 2017.
At a meeting in September, commissioners expressed frustration about being presented with a crisis for which they had no warning. Two weeks later, they approved a stopgap $125,000 expenditure for Gammage to restaff the courts for the remainder of year, and hiring has already begun.
It’s unclear when those attorneys will be on board, or if the commission will approve a $644,000 budget increase for eight additional attorneys and staff to do the work next year.
“If there indeed was a crisis, we shouldn’t be learning about it at the last minute,” said Fulton County Commission Vice Chairman Bob Ellis. “If it was that much of a crisis, we should have had it pretty well laid out well in advance.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.