Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

OPINION | Atlanta crime, Fulton courts: New year of same old, same old

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. … No, actually, you should hear this. Again.

It’s a new year but the same debate rages about crime in Atlanta and Fulton County.

A couple of days into 2020, Channel 2 Action News ran a story headlined, “Violent repeat offender accused of raping jogger granted bond, AGAIN, by judge.”

Actually, the 17-year-old repeat offender, who allegedly beat and raped a woman last May two days after getting out on bond, is still in the slammer according to jail records, having not raised the $60,000 bond. But his alleged victim, a mother of two, is freaked out at the notion he could be released and go looking for trouble.

The same day that story ran, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields issued a memo telling cops that they — for the time being — would halt car chases. This came after car thieves were involved in a couple of fatal crashes.

“I don’t want to see us cost someone their life in pursuit of an auto theft person or burglar, when the courts aren’t even going to hold them accountable,” she said. “How can we justify that?”

About that time, she was pulling the plug on the drug squad. The extra cops no longer being used to bust druggies would now be used in an effort to squelch violent crime.

You see, Atlanta had a tough year when it came to crime. Sure, the city administration might contend that crime is down, and they’d be correct.**

(**Crime was down 2% in 2019 compared to the previous year, according to Atlanta Police Department figures. BUT homicides were up 9%, rapes were up 8%, aggravated assaults were up 12%, while robberies dropped a percent, according to the APD.)

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields. (credit: Alyssa Pointer /Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer / AJC

That’s why Shields and her commanders are up at night, surveying maps and computerized crime models to determine where best they can encounter criminals, even if they aren’t for the moment chasing them.

When I spoke with Shields this month, she sounded frustrated. The cars that cops are often pursuing contain burglars, drug users and auto larcenists. You know, mopes.

“These cases are not being heard in the courts. These crimes are not prosecuted,” she told me. “It’s a running joke when we ask (about a recently arrested criminal) and we’ll find these folks are already bonded out.”

She wasn’t laughing, so I suspect it’s not really a joke.

“The Fulton County judicial system is broken,” she said. “I don’t see the participants in it having the desire to fix it.”

An outside entity should be at the helm of overseeing any changes, she said.

Fulton County Justice Center Tower. Fulton County Courthouse. Downtown Atlanta. (BOB ANDRES / 2016 AJC file photo)
Photo: BOB ANDRES / AJC file

Last year, the department publicly criticized Fulton’s courts — the Superior Court judges, the juvenile judges and the magistrates for frequently bonding out repeat offenders. The same young troublemakers will get arrested, quickly get bonded out on their own signature — often after promising to behave — and then be back at it. It’s rinse and repeat.

Last fall, something called the Atlanta Repeat Offender Commission released a report that found that just 23% of repeat offenders — people with three or more felony convictions — were sentenced to confinement by Fulton judges in 2017 and 2018. The previous year, it was 37%.

“The leniency shown to these bad actors by the judicial system results in recidivistic crimes that prey on the public, often resulting in egregious injury or public fear by citizens and the neighborhoods who feel as if they’ve been terrorized,” the report concludes.

Most often, the repeat offenders (many of them not old enough to vote, much less buy beer legally) get released for time already served in jail. That was an average of 95 days, according to the report, which was a product of the Atlanta Police Foundation. The report also scored judges on how hard they were on repeat offenders.

Criminal activity led to a shooting that left a man dead at a Buckhead shopping center on June 17, 2019, Atlanta police said. Investigators found the man lying outside a car at the Bennett Street Shopping Center near the intersection of Peachtree Road and Bennett Street around 8:30 a.m. that Monday. He appeared to have been involved in some form of criminal activity that resulted in him being shot, Maj. Michael O’Connor said. A Dodge Challenger at the scene fit the description of a vehicle used in multiple car break-ins Sunday night, according to police. Officers were alerted to be on the lookout for a white Challenger or Charger with three people inside. (JOHN SPINK / AJC)
Photo: JOHN SPINK / AJC

I called Fulton Superior Court Chief Judge Robert McBurney, who said “repeat offenders” and “violent felons” are often very different terms. Most times, such repeat offenders are drug-addled numbskulls, young hooligans or mentally unbalanced people committing property crimes. Still, they are very aggravating.

He said repeat offenders must now, after they are indicted, appear before elected Superior Court judges instead of appointed magistrates. That gives a sense of ownership and accountability to the cases.

Another frequent problem was that young adult offenders would appear in bond hearings and seem to be criminal virgins. Yet many were far from it, having long and serious juvenile rap sheets unknown to the judges who then granted them light bail. McBurney said the county is still ironing out the kinks in the computer system that will allow judges to view the juvenile records, which still remain largely hidden.

Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Robert McBurney. (credit: Alyssa Pointer / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer / AJC

McBurney, who hands over the job of chief judge at the end of the month, was scored the toughest in the report on sentencing, with a 48% lock-‘em-up rate. He appreciates “an engaged public” pushing and cajoling for change, but he indicated that Chief Shields’ criticisms are somewhat predictable.

“If the news conference was about global warming, she’d blame the judges,” McBurney said. “I can say a number of criminals walk out the front door of court because of officers not showing up.”

Records showed that APD officers failed to show up 2,340 times in 2018 to testify at a grand jury.

This month, longtime District Attorney Paul Howard, who has taken flak from both cops and judges for his efforts in this mess, said he’d soon unveil recommendations to pull the judicial system from the ditch. His office says he’s still crafting them.

I spoke with Amber Connor, a northwest Atlanta resident who is a leader of the group Concerned Citizens United. She has spent almost five years crunching numbers; attending court hearings; talking with judges, police and prosecutors; and giving speeches.

“It seems like the city, county and state can’t fix it because no one wants to step out of line,” she said. “They want me to point out problems, but they don’t want you pointing at them.”

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