Fulton leaders agree to return $5 million to judicial departments

Fulton County commissioners have agreed to restore $5 million in funding that was taken from the budgets of the sheriff’s department, district attorney’s office and other criminal justice agencies.

Commissioners cut funds from the departments to finance programs aimed at criminal justice reform. Criminal justice reform has been a rallying cry for County Commission Chairman John Eaves, who wants to start programs that will reduce recidivism and keep people with mental health issues out of the jail. To fund the reforms, commissioners took a portion of the money normally allotted for general operations.

But the criminal justice agencies balked, saying programs that were accomplishing some of Eaves’ goals would have to be cut because of a lack of funds. Wednesday’s vote restored funding. In return, the judges and other justice department leaders who make up the Justice Reinvestment Steering Committee agreed to engage in good-faith negotiations with county commissioners and each other to reduce expenses, consider sentencing alternatives and continue to operate programs that could help keep people out of jail.

District Attorney Paul Howard was the only member of the committee who refused to sign a memorandum of understanding that laid out the agreement.

Howard declined to comment on why he withheld his signature. Fulton County Chairman John Eaves said Howard would still get the money back for his department, and would still participate in discussions about planned improvements to the justice system. Howard had wanted more quantifiable goals than were laid out in the document, Eaves said.

The document is “aspirational,” said county attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker.

“No one is being bound by anything in here except working in good faith,” she said.

The county is in the midst of studying ways that it can reform the criminal justice system to reduce recidivism and better treat people with mental health issues. The goal, Eaves said, is to increase public safety and be smarter about how the system works.

The original plan took money from criminal justice departments to ensure those departments would be interested in discussing possible solutions — and would use that money to reinvest in the eventual solution. But the judges and others demanded the money be returned until a plan is in place.

That plan should be completed by June 30.

Wednesday’s agreement comes after months of wrangling and the threatened shut-down of programs.

The public defender and the district attorney also furloughed employees for four hours every two weeks, citing the money that was withheld from their budgets.

Emails Howard provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show the county’s chief financial officer, Sharon Whitmore, agreed in November “to allow the DA to manage within his 2016 budget allocation” using furloughs.

To Howard, that and subsequent emails about furloughs are proof that overseers of the county budget expected his office to take that action. Howard under-spent his budget in January and February, and later questioned the necessity of the furloughs. County Manager Dick Anderson said previously that the furloughs weren’t warranted and weren’t requested by the county. Howard disputes that.

Next week, the group that includes the solicitor general, the public defender, the sheriff, the district attorney, the clerk of superior court and the chief judges of magistrate, state and superior courts will again gather to hash out ideas.

“We’re going to get there,” Eaves said. “Change never, or rarely, happens easily.”

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