Opinion: Violent crime shows need for real reforms

Chris Van Es/NewsArt

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Chris Van Es/NewsArt

THE EDITORIAL BOARD’S OPINION

Broken systems can yield tragic results in the at-times life-and-death matters of criminal justice and public safety.

Starting today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution presents our latest watchdog reporting that spotlights serious gaps and failures in statewide systems and reforms that were supposed to make Georgia safer.

Our stories use last summer’s murder of Mariam Abdulrab as an exemplar of how missed opportunities helped pave the way for a case that saw a beloved woman abducted and shot dead. A previous offender with a history of violence and incarceration is charged with her murder. Demarcus Brinkley, 27, was indicted in November on nine felony counts, including murder, kidnapping and attempted rape in the killing of the popular bartender who lived in Midtown Atlanta.

Today’s story notes, “As state legislators and others explore ways to combat a recent increase in violent crime, Brinkley’s case highlights the persistent challenge of curbing violence by repeat offenders and the reality that there no simple fixes. The case illuminates the ways the state’s social service, mental health and criminal justice systems touch one another, and how failures in each can undermine public safety and lead to devastating consequences for Georgians — even years later.”

We’d say that “simple fixes” are elusive – unless you stretch the definition of “fixes” beyond reason. As in some politically expedient ideas that surface, particularly during election years. They sound good; and they can comfort an anxious public – at least until rising crime dashes those feelings of security.

Put another way, they often don’t work as promised.

We eventually learn that problems remain – which can, and does, put the innocent public at risk.

That’s been the case for a long time in Georgia, as cycles of how to best handle violent crime run their course.

Lock-’em-up strategies are perennial crowd pleasers – at least until the cost of doing so comes due. Georgia spends a lot more per year to imprison a person than it does to educate a schoolchild.

The last decade has seen Georgia work to do better at how it deals with perpetrators of crime. The most-commonsense broad view is that it’s best for society to find smart ways to distinguish between criminals that society’s rightly afraid of – and those who only irritate or anger us with nonviolent offenses.

Which isn’t to say that secure prison cells don’t have a place. They do. As we wrote in a 2013 editorial, “We’ll say here, for the record, that hardcore, spin-the-revolving-door, unrepentant violent felons should be locked up until they are no longer a feasible threat to society, however long that takes.”

That sentiment was noted in earlier editorials too as Georgia considered recommendations of its 2011 Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, set up as part of a push championed by then-Gov. Nathan Deal.

The council’s report recommended locking up the worst offenders for public safety’s sake while greatly strengthening efforts and programs to rehabilitate nonviolent criminals. A 2011 editorial explained that, “The council’s reform concept is pretty simple. It calls for strengthening and increasing use of community-based options such as probation and parole programs and drug-abuse treatment to manage lower-risk criminals, many of whom are first-time offenders.”

Creating systems that do a better job of deciding whom to incarcerate -- or work intensively to reform onto the straight-and-narrow -- remains a necessity to make society safe. The council and its work was an impressive innovation at the time, praised by prosecutors, judges and the like. The Gold Dome would do well to seriously consider reviving it because improving public safety requires a viewpoint that looks across all aspects of the system.

The AJC’s latest reporting shows Georgia is still far short of consistently reaching these goals. As we report today about the man accused of killing Abdulrab, “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigated Brinkley’s history and uncovered numerous gaps in Georgia’s justice system and its handling of a man who first showed signs of being sexually aggressive when he was still a child. Foster care, the mental health system, prosecutors, a veteran judge and the state probation system all touched Brinkley.

None broke the pattern.”

The above summation highlights a number of systems that should – and must – work together effectively to help keep Georgians safe by assessing offenders and what should be done in their individual cases to either rehabilitate them -- or lock them away for the common good.

The latest rise in violent crime across Georgia shows that we still are not doing this work well. There are systemic flaws that need to be addressed quickly and comprehensively. AJC reporting shows there are significant data gaps that keep prosecutors, judges, licensing boards and others from knowing what they should about a person’s criminal past. Without that information being current and readily available, it’s impossible to best predict what an offender is likely to do once back on the streets.

There are other problems in need of remedies as well. Despite the push for criminal justice reform in the last decade, the resources for monitoring offenders are still spread too thin. That’s created, in just one example, a backlog of 6,000 cases for the board that’s supposed to rate the risk of re-offense by convicted sex offenders.

In the case of Abdulrab’s alleged killer, opportunities were missed when he was a child in foster care, when prosecutors didn’t advocate strongly enough for children he had allegedly assaulted, when a judge didn’t carefully prescribe conditions for his probation and when his serious mental needs weren’t addressed, including when he was released from prison.

As lawmakers prepare to try to improve Georgia’s mental health system, they would be well served to consider its intersection with the criminal justice system.

The AJC’s reporting – and the drumbeat of rising crime stats – show clearly that we need to do better. Truly improving public safety will take more than sound bites – or only reflexive moves like hiring more police to arrest more offenders. That’s not enough.

How we seek to help young people at risk of getting involved in crime and what we do with offenders afterward – and how well we do it – is an important, if less visible, part of making Georgians safer.

Figuring out how best to do that should be high on the Gold Dome’s legislative agenda this year.

The Editorial Board.