Amid a spike in burglaries and thefts, the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods in March issued a crime-fighting resolution calling for citizens to watch the courts. Now that some have indeed watched closely, they say they’re learning parts of the system are pretty good, causing the council to roll back some of its stronger critiques.
At the request of BCN Chair Mary Norwood, local attorneys Nolan Leake and Sadler Poe took a closer look at parts of Fulton County’s judicial system, including a “complaint room” where prosecutors vet felony cases and a court session where bail decisions were made. Both say they were generally impressed favorably, and where problems remain, there’s “not one easy solution,” Leake says.
“Everybody says the problem is somebody else,” Leake said, summing up the finger-pointing among police, prosecutors, judges and citizens. “But in reality, everybody is contributing something to making it not work as smoothly as it could.”
The BCN’s original resolution called for eliminating the complaint room in favor of full court hearings on evidence. Leake and Poe – who are not criminal attorneys, but are versed in the law — visited the complaint room on March 25.
“From our perspective, it seems like that worked pretty well,” Poe said, adding the District Attorney’s office said it prosecutes about 95 percent of the police cases that come through the room.
He said he also communicated with Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields about the process, and reported that she said she preferred hearings where officers are present to answer questions. “But she didn’t really say she had any complaints about the complaint room,” he added.
Leake’s one concern about the complaint room was its use of old technology, such as fax machines.
District Attorney Paul Howard said in a written statement that it was a “real pleasure and a great experience” to host the BCN representatives. “It is always my preference to meet face-to-face when citizens have questions or concerns about the criminal justice system,” he said.
The pair’s April visit to a Fulton courtroom also went well. “Both of us were quite impressed with the way the judge worked and the way the process worked,” said Poe, adding that none of the judge’s decisions appeared to be flawed or outrageous.
They still had concerns with general reports from the DA’s office that repeat offenders often get bail or probation, including those already serving probation from other cases. Poe called it a “disturbing” contrast with assumptions citizens get from crime TV shows. “You watch ‘CSI’ or anything like that, they catch someone who’s on probation, they go to jail,” he said.
“The problem is, you can’t lock everybody up. We don’t have the room for that,” said Leake, adding another large factor is that prison appears to do a poor job of reforming convicts. “Probably like everything else, you need to throw more money at it to make it better, and there’s not more money to throw at it.”
As a result of Poe and Leake’s review, Norwood delayed the crime resolution and adjusted it to remove the complaint room critique before circulation to member neighborhood associations. The BCN had previously deleted a resolution item regarding cash bail for city offenses after City Councilmember Matt Westmoreland explained it applied only to people accused of petty crimes.