Anyone who has visited Atlanta Municipal Court has seen that it's not achieving its full potential. The Downtown judicial facility, which mostly handles traffic citations and city code violations, is burdened with a heavy caseload, not enough staffers, and other woes. Now, thanks to software glitches, it runs the risk of not actually serving justice as it was intended.
Imagine this: An Atlanta police officer tickets you for reckless driving. Or walking down the street with an open beer bottle. Or fighting outside a bar. Depending on the offense, the cop will either take you to jail or issue a citation. That typically leads to an appearance in front of a Municipal Court judge.
Only, you don't show up to your day in court. The judge gets mad. He or she issues a bench warrant for your arrest for failing to appear, or, as it's known in public safety circles, an "FTA." These warrants are transmitted to APD, where supervisors assign officers to serve the legally binding notices across the city.
But that last part's not happening. According to a thorough report released in May about the court prepared by Stephanie Ramage, a former reporter who serves as Mayor Kasim Reed's Citizens' Advocate, police officers are currently not enforcing the warrants. The APD and municipal judges have been frozen in a standoff "for years" over who should maintain the system needed to serve the bench warrants.
The open-container carryin', peein' in public ne'er-do-wells, and reckless drivers who get in public scuffles aren't getting rounded up for skipping their court dates. And if Atlanta police do pick them up on the street for an offense and search their names in the Georgia Crime Information Center, a statewide database consisting of more than 2.6 million people's criminal histories, the FTA warrant doesn't appear.
The court, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which operates the GCIC, cannot enter information into the database. The court doesn't participate in GCIC, Municipal Court Administrator Chris Patterson says, because it lacks the staff to maintain a 24-hour system to verify the warrants.
APD isn't being lazy, it just doesn't want the city to get sued for unlawful arrest. Officers say the municipal court's software is so janky that they can't trust whether the warrants are still valid or not. Imagine the outcry if you had paid off your citation or answered a warrant only to be arrested several days later for failing to do so? The headline in the newspaper isn't "Court's software leads to unlawful arrest." It's "APD slaps handcuffs on innocent person."
Patterson says the court forwards the names of some people who failed to appear before a judge for traffic violations to the Georgia Department of Driver Services. That agency sends the person a letter warning that his or her driver's license will be suspended if he or she fails to clear up the infraction. Most people need their licenses, so they fix the issue. But if they don't drive, then it might not matter to them.
According to Ramage's report, if police don't serve the bench warrants, "municipal court may well be wholly without teeth where scofflaws are concerned." And since the court doesn't enter FTAs into the statewide database, cops have no way of knowing if someone they pick up for urinating on the sidewalk might also have a warrant from the municipal court.
Patterson did not provide information about the number of outstanding FTA bench warrants before CL went to press. In a late 2011 city investigation, Police Chief George Turner said, "There are thousands of folks that are actually warranted by Municipal Court warrants. But there's no way, if an officer stops a person[,] to determine if that person is warranted."
There's no evidence that this gap in the system has contributed to any additional crime. Or that anyone is in danger. Regardless, it's a problem that needs to be fixed. Government and the criminal justice system must be functional.
Does this make me a killjoy who wants to see people's faces pressed against the windows of the city jail? No. I think cash is better spent when people are routed to programs that help them overcome their addictions, find a job to stop stealing, or guide them out of a life of crime, no matter how petty.
Government is like a house. To prevent collapse, it needs to be maintained. That involves boring tasks, such as plugging leaks, cleaning gutters, and fixing faulty wiring.
Maintenance costs money, but it also saves money in the long run. It prevents catastrophe. It gives you the peace of mind of knowing you live in a safe structure that won't crumble in the middle of the night or catch fire when you're busy at work.
Reed's office claims it's working on a review of the court's operations. And the APD says it wants to work with the court. According to the report, the issue could be resolved with a $2 million software fix. That's not a small amount but it's also not an astronomical sum. Consider it an investment.
For all the talk of Atlanta becoming a world-class, 24-hour city, there are certain unsexy things that need to work. Having a well-run and efficient criminal justice system would not only ensure justice is served, but also improve quality of life and potentially help reroute people stuck in a vicious cycle of crime. And maybe even help the court earn some extra revenue to boost its operations.
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