The Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center. COURTESY GWINNETT COUNTY

Gwinnett population growth puts pressure on law enforcement, courts

As Gwinnett County’s population continues to grow, so do the workloads of the county’s law enforcement departments.

The Gwinnett County Police Department, Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office are asking the county for funding for more positions in 2020 in order to meet growing demands at every level of the law enforcement and justice system from the 911 call center to Superior Court.

READ | Gwinnett police chief wants 30 more officers, works to fill vacancies

MORE | Gwinnett sheriff wants to add 79 new deputies in 2020

Gwinnett is the second-largest county in metro Atlanta and is experiencing the area’s highest average annual growth, according to a recent Atlanta Regional Commission study. Gwinnett added 15,100 people between 2018 and 2019.

Although the county’s crime rate is trending downward, its 911 center receives more calls every year and assigns more criminal cases to investigators. The county crime rate decreased 2.98% from 2017 to 2018, and is expected to decline for 2019, but as the population has grown, the total number of calls is expected to increase by 1.5% and the number of cases assigned is expected to increase by nearly 10% from 2018 to 2019.

To handle that workload, Chief Butch Ayers has asked the county for 30 more officer positions. The county police department had 137 vacancies when Ayers made the request to the county commission last week, but even if those were all filled, the department couldn’t satisfy all of its needs, Ayers said.

The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department is also seeking more positions, requesting 79 in its proposed 2020 budget. Thirteen would be added to teams handling warrants, the sex offender registry and family violence protective orders. Nearly half – 36, including a supervising lieutenant – would work at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center, which will finish a two-year expansion project in 2020. The building will have an extra entrance where deputies will perform security screenings and new courtrooms in which deputies will provide security during trials and hearings.

The increased pressure of a growing population is felt in all levels in the justice system. Two new judges, one for superior court and one for juvenile court, will be added to the county system in 2020, after the state Legislature determined there was a need and approved the new judgeships. With those two new judges comes the need for more sheriff’s deputies, court reporters, prosecutors and other staff.

“When you create a Superior Court trial division, you’re not just creating one person on an organizational chart,” said Chief Judge George Hutchinson.

The administrative office of the courts will have to hire four additional staffers in addition to the new judge – a judicial assistant, calendar coordinator, staff attorney and court reporter. The entire cost of the new Superior Court judge’s office will be $621,966, according to Hutchinson’s budget estimate. The juvenile court would also have to hire at least four people besides the new judge at a cost of $365,284.

Representatives from both courts said this still does not fully address their needs. The superior courts should have 16 judges for the current caseload, Hutchinson said. Presiding Judge Robert Rodatus pointed out that even with four judges, Gwinnett County’s at-risk juvenile population is still almost 40% larger than that of Cobb County, which also has four juvenile court judges. But judges are apportioned by the Legislature in Georgia, leaving county governments powerless to address a shortage.

The Gwinnett District Attorney’s office will also have to add more staff because of these new judges. The DA’s office follows a “vertical prosecution model” in which cases are assigned to a judge and corresponding team of prosecutors after a warrant is issued. The prosecutors and judge, plus support staff for each, handle each case from beginning to end. That means two new 10-person teams of prosecutors, investigators and other staff must be added to the DA’s office.

“We are once again victims of forces beyond our control,” District Attorney Danny Porter told the county commission in his budget presentation regarding the need for more staff.

Porter is asking the county for nearly $1.7 million for new staff in 2020, including the nearly two dozen positions tied to the new judges. That figure also includes an expanded appellate team and a pre-sentence investigator for juvenile cases; those positions are not related to the judgeships.

The departments will learn whether they’ll get their new positions in late fall, when the county budget committee proposes a 2020 budget.

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