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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Reed: If you commit a violent crime in Atlanta, 'you have less than a 5 percent chance of going to jail'

Reed blasts courts for releasing repeat felons rather than sending them to jail
  • CL File/Joeff Davis
  • Reed blasts courts for releasing repeat felons rather than sending them to jail
Next time there's a violent crime committed by a repeat felon who was put on the street rather than thrown in jail by a Fulton County judge, Mayor Kasim Reed says he'll make it known.

The mayor is ratcheting up his recent criticism of the Fulton courts, which he says are responsible for freeing repeat felons, some of whom were already on probation at the time they were arrested. He says the court has contributed to what he calls a "turnstile" situation that allows those offenders back on Atlanta's streets rather than locking 'em up in the county jail.

"What you're going to see is that every time that a violent crime occurs in the city and it's someone that Fulton County released, we're going to start publicizing it," Reed told CL yesterday. "We're going to show that we arrested this person before, and that they went to Fulton County, and Fulton County released them back into your neighborhood so there's shared accountability."

Reed raised eyebrows in a May 7 interview with WABE's Denis O'Hayer when he said the county "doesn't do anything," including making sure that repeat offenders go to jail. Several brazen crimes in southeast Atlanta have spurred community pleas for additional policing and improving public safety. Reed is now emphasizing the role the courts and county jail play in keeping the city safe and he's pointing to Atlanta Police Department data to back up his claims.

Recently, the APD penned an internal memo that looked at Fulton judges' decisions on who to release and who to send to jail.

"Repeat offenders are routinely released after their arrests by Fulton County judges," reads the undated memo. "Atlanta Police officers arrest and charge persons who have been arrested many times before, a situation which causes great frustration for the officers, but even more, victimizes city residents, visitors and the community. The same people committing the same crimes or escalating their criminal behavior to more serious violations of the law account for the largest percentage of arrests, convictions and unfortunately, light sentences or none at all."

APD looked specifically at one police unit - APEX, the replacement of the controversial Red Dog, which focuses on violent crimes. Between April 2011 and March 2013, the memo says, the unit made 374 felony arrests. Of the 220 cases that went to trial, 209, or 95 percent, resulted in a conviction. Not a bad record.

However, only six of those defendants - around 2.7 percent - were sentenced to prison.

"If you commit a violent crime, you have less than a 5 percent chance of being put in jail," Reed says.

More than 83 percent of the rest of those cases received either probation or another form of alternative sentencing, such as pre-trial diversion. And almost 80 percent of the people convicted were already on probation. The memo says the Fulton judge who heard their cases could have chosen to revoke their probation and send them to state prison.

In addition, the report notes several repeat offenders who were arrested for felonies, most of which were drug offenses, and had long rap sheets. One had been arrested 63 previous times. He ended up getting a five-year suspended sentence, according to the memo.

Reed says he wants the county to "fulfill its constitutional role and to stop releasing violent criminals back on the street after they're arrested. The data is irrefutable."

To do so ostensibly means judges sentence defendants to serve hard time in the House of Many Doors on Rice Street, which over the last decade has been trying to comply with a federal judge's consent order related to overcrowding.

According to Melanie Velez, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, the legal nonprofit that filed the 2004 lawsuit over the jail's conditions, 276 women were sleeping on the floor of the Fulton jail during May, which is a violation of the federal consent decree. As of Friday, she says, one woman was sleeping on the floor for 21 days.

Reed says the county has referenced those conditions in discussions about the issue but it should have built "a new jail" or developed a "long-term solution" for the jail long ago.

The mayor adds: "I'm going to talk about it until it changes. I'm going to raise this issue. I'm going to, one, continue to do my job and not use it as an excuse. But I'm going to continue to raise this issue until it changes."

The mayor's not the only elected official pointing fingers at the courts. Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard recently complained to residents at a Buckhead civic association meeting that judges were routinely releasing criminals whom he felt belonged behind bars. He pointed fingers specifically at one judge - Judge Walter Lovett - and, at the meeting, recalled a phone conversation with Atlanta Police Chief George Turner in which they discussed whether they should ask Reed to get involved.

It's a complex issue. The case could be that the Fulton jail is indeed packed and that judges, hearing from jail officials that the facility is nearly at capacity, are trying to prevent overcrowding by diverting people whom they consider to be less dangerous from the jail. In addition, each one of those repeat offenders is a story in itself. And there are other potential solutions rather than just focusing on incarceration.

Velez, who has not seen the APD data on repeat offenders, says that the lock-'em-up argument is shortsighted.

"We need to focus on re-investing in our community to alleviate poverty and eliminate crime," she says. "Incarcerating people more and for longer periods of time is not a long-term solution to problems in our community."

We asked Fulton Chief Judge Cynthia Wright for comment. Her judicial assistant said she declined. So we requested a formal sitdown with her to talk about the issue. We also reached out to Fulton Sheriff Ted Jackson, who oversees the jail, and Calvin Lightfoot, a jail expert who's been tasked by a federal judge to monitor the facility.

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