Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed stepped up his verbal thrashing of the Fulton County government this week, accusing its judges of treating criminals “with more respect than they treat law-abiding citizens.”
Reed, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the county has repeatedly failed to solve its jail crisis and should build a new facility to lock up more violent criminals. He also accused some judges there of being too lenient with repeat offenders.
In the past month, Reed has unleashed a barrage of vitriol at the county unprecedented for an Atlanta leader.
“A responsible government would have at least come up with a proposal to build a facility rather than releasing violent criminals back into the communities that they were elected to serve,” Reed said.
The reality is more complicated, county officials responded Thursday. County Commission Chairman John Eaves said the county has solved its jail overcrowding problem. And while he acknowledged that some judges have failed to revoke the probation of repeat offenders, the county is addressing that issue, he said.
Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Cynthia Wright issued a response to an AJC inquiry without directly addressing the mayor’s criticisms.
“My preference would be that we engage in constructive discussion instead of finger-pointing as public safety is a complex topic deserving of informed comment and considered thought,” she said in the statement.
Wright’s statement laid part of the blame on APD officers for failing to appear in court and prosecutors for filing unprovable charges. According to the court administrator, Wright plans to meet with Reed within the next week to talk about court processes and his concerns.
Reed’s remarks come as his administration has faced criticism in recent weeks after a series of high-profile crimes, including the murder of video game engineer Patrick Cotrona in East Atlanta and the shooting of Saman Balkhanian as he walked home from a Braves game.
While the mayor touts successes during his tenure including hiring the highest-ever number of Atlanta Police Department officers and an 18 percent drop in crime since taking office, he leveled criticism at Fulton County’s “turnstile jail” system that he says routinely undermines the APD’s work.
The county jail on Rice Street has battled overcrowding for decades and is under a federal judge’s supervision to solve a litany of problems, including nonfunctioning cell door locks and inadequate staffing. The county also must stay under a mandated cap of 2,500 inmates in the main jail, which has led to more use of alternative sentencing programs such as drug, DUI and veterans’ courts.
But Reed charges that judges are also letting repeat offenders out to commit more crimes. Citing a memo prepared by the APD, Reed points to convicted criminals with anywhere from 40 to 60 prior arrests. And 80 percent of criminals arrested by the APD’s Atlanta Proactive Enforcement Interdiction unit between April 2011 and March 2013 were on probation, Reed said.
“Where is the outrage?” he said.
The memo singles out Superior Court Magistrate Judge Walter Lovett as particularly lenient. Lovett did not return a call seeking comment from the AJC.
Wright said the Superior Court recently implemented a plan to improve probation revocation hearings, but did not elaborate on what that meant.
South Fulton Commissioner Bill Edwards said the city has done little to help with the jail capacity issue and accused Reed of making a scapegoat out of the county.
“What they need to do is shut the hell up,” Edwards said. “If you can’t help me, don’t hurt me.”
Edwards pointed out that two years ago, when Senior U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob ordered the county to buy Atlanta’s jail, Atlanta upped the asking price from $40 million to $85 million. The move so frustrated Shoob that he threatened to bar Atlanta police from bringing detainees to the county jail.
At the time, Reed said the price increase reflected a fair market value and was due to a greater need in Atlanta for bed space because of an expanded police force.
“When you did that, you became part of the problem and not part of the solution,” Edwards said.
The city and county have also argued over the cost of renting space in the city jail, which has more than 700 unused beds. When Fulton rejected the $85 million jail price, it also turned down an option to reserve 400 to 750 beds at $103 per inmate per night — $25 more than U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was charged.
Reed says the county can’t use the city jail beds until it ponies up a fair price. Atlanta residents already pay taxes to the county to house inmates, he said.
“So what are you saying I should do? Send the Atlanta people’s money to Fulton County in the form of taxes but in addition take on the financial burden of housing their inmates?” Reed said. “I am not going to stand by while the people in the City of Atlanta are double-taxed and get nothing for it.”
Reed dismissed accusations he is stonewalling progress and said Fulton County has yet to present a plan to his administration that is financially sound. He called the county’s long-term plans to add additional wings or acquire space in the Union County jail patchwork solutions.
“There is no cooperation because they won’t put forth a proposal that is meaningful and that keeps the city whole, which is all that I ask,” he said. “But I am not going to lose money because Fulton County won’t get its act together and do its job.”