Conversation with ... Senior U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob

‘A judge that wants to do the right thing’

After years of procrastination, Fulton County commissioners have made curing chronic overcrowding at the Rice Street jail a top priority. It was Senior U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob who got them moving.

Over the summer, the judge wanted the county to buy extra space at the Atlanta city jail, and he warned commission members that anyone who stood in the way would land behind bars themselves.

It was typical of Shoob, the 88-year-old stalwart of the Georgia federal judiciary. He’s passionate about inmates’ rights, and he’s known for cutting through foggy legal questions with crystal-clear directives.

Among the controversial measures he’s taken during his 32 years on the bench: ordering Cobb County to build a new jail in 1982, which cost $12 million; ordering hundreds of Cubans released from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1983 after the Mariel boatlift; and ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up Georgia’s filthy rivers in 1996.

Shoob has been presiding over efforts to improve the Fulton jail for more than a decade. He’s currently enforcing the county’s compliance with a 2006 consent order stemming from a lawsuit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights over dirty, dangerous and crowded conditions.

Q: How did we get into this bind with the jail, where we’re having to pay $30 to $50 per inmate per day to outsource inmates to other jails?

A: It’s the same thing in just about every major county and every major city all over the country. You’ve just got more people being housed in jails, and longer sentences are causing it. The public wants people put away for 20 and 30 years. My feeling is, if somebody’s not dangerous, then you should give them a sentence that would get their attention and provide punishment, but not necessarily ruin the man’s life if he hasn’t killed somebody or done something really bad.

Q: What will it take for Fulton to come out from under the consent order?

A: One, we need a new jail, which is years off. The second thing that could be accomplished is to reduce the sentences — reasonable sentences. Third is hopefully to work out a deal with the city where we can use the city jail. We thought we had a deal worked out, and they doubled the price [from $40 million to $85 million], and the deal fell through.

Q: You told Fulton commissioners you would incarcerate them if they didn’t make that deal. Had it not fallen through, and had they defied you, would you seriously have put them in the federal pen?

A: It was something that I didn’t have to decide. It’s very doubtful that I would have put them in jail. It was just something to get their attention — and it did.

Q: Is there still a threat that they could go to jail?

A: There’s no threat to put any county commissioners in jail now. I’ve got some good friends on the commission, and I certainly wouldn’t want to do that.

Q: What are you looking for in the report from the commission due Dec. 1?

A: I want a detail as to what they’ve accomplished. One basic thing is how far they’ve gone toward building a new jail and what sort of time period we’re going to have to set forth. It’s a very difficult problem, because the money just isn’t there to take care of all these things.

Q: We’ve heard estimates of $150 million to $250 million to build a new jail. Do you have any idea how Fulton is going to come up with that kind of money?

A: It’s going to cost considerably more than that. We don’t have any numbers, but I seriously doubt the final result will be to tear down the current jail. I think there will be an addition to the current jail. That would be a lot cheaper. It would be financed, probably, through a bond issue. That’s the way they usually finance them.

Q: The commission is currently looking into several short-term strategies to get the inmate population down, such as paying for more home-based electronic monitoring and expanding diversion programs. Will steps like these make any difference?

A: I think they’ll make a dent in the problem, yes. How much of a help they’ll be, I can’t say. But I think we’re moving in the right direction.

Q: Throughout your career, you’ve frequently been called an “activist” judge. How do you like that label?

A: I don’t think the term is appropriate for me. I think they ought to say a “concerned” judge and a judge that wants to do the right thing. Some judges might not care about how long somebody stays in jail. I try to devise sentences that are not only more appropriate in terms of punishment, but that will maybe enable the person to return to society within a reasonable period of time and make a living. Because the people that suffer are the families — the husbands, wives, children and so forth.

Q: President Jimmy Carter appointed you to the bench in 1979. When was the last time you talked to him?

A: Maybe six months ago I might have run into him or seen him somewhere, at some civic function. He’s a good friend. He’s done more good after his term as president than when he was president.

The Sunday conversation is edited for length and clarity.