- By Chris Joyner The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
I got an earful from readers who responded to last week’s column about Delvin Gates, the 17-year-old whose string of burglaries and other property crimes tormented neighbors in West End over the last several years.
Gates now stands accused of murder in DeKalb County.
Folks had a lot of concerns about Gates, but the common thread is the belief the state needs to do a better job communicating and coordinating when it comes to young offenders.
Gates was a problem for residents in southwest Atlanta for years leading up to his sentencing in March 2016 in Fulton County Juvenile Court. The Atlanta Police Department had identified him as one of its top juvenile offenders in that part of the city and had urged residents to attend his court date to show the judge their desire to have him taken off the streets.
John Pavlin, a neighborhood activist and local construction company owner, was among those who went to court multiple times as Gates’ hearing was rescheduled time and again. “It was like they were wearing us down so we don’t show up,” he recalled.
Pavlin said he and other residents stuck it out and were distressed when a case worker from the state recommended the juvenile equivalent of house arrest for the teen, even with neighbors and several police officers there in a show of force.
“If we weren’t there I don’t think he would have even gone away,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, the cops are telling you how bad he is.’”
The judge in the case sentenced Gates to three years in state custody, and residents who were there told me they figured that he would be locked up for a good long while. In fact, the sentence was for six months confinement with the rest served under supervised probation. With credit for time served, Gates was back out by summer 2016.
Pavlin said the juvenile justice system let the public down “big time” by going so soft.
“I was so pissed when I heard he was back out,” Pavlin said. “Then this. I’m disgusted.”
The “this” is the news that Gates faces murder charges in the July shooting death of Joseph Livolsi, a movie special effects technician and father of two. Livolsi was killed in a DeKalb County apartment in July. Gates was charged in September and is being held in the county jail without bond.
Gates has only been charged in the crime and may not be guilty, but the fact that he was out of juvenile custody at all has people across the metro area shaking their heads.
Harold Joseph, 76 of Fayetteville, said he understands that the system needs to treat young offenders differently then adults, but giving a notorious offender a few scant months in detention
“My goodness, when do you cut it off? That was totally ridiculous,” he said.
There are a lot of reasons why juveniles are not locked up. For most, jail isn’t the best option unless you are trying to make a hardened criminal out of them. Most reasonable people would agree that society should make every effort to reform and redirect children who make a mistake — even a serious one.
People in West End tell me that’s the approach they took with Gates. A local company that hires at-risk youth tried to bring him in and high-ranking police and local politicians spoke to his family. Nothing worked.
Pavlin said a neighbor of his came home to find Gates on her porch holding her laptop. He was wearing an ankle monitor at the time from a prior scrape with the court, he said.
Is bad information sharing to blame?
What confused a lot of readers is the idea that the sentencing judge may not have had all the information in front of him. Fulton County Juvenile Judge Willie Lovett sentenced Gates, but he died in January so we don’t know exactly what was on his mind. However, Chief Judge Bradley Boyd said it appeared the kid’s record didn’t match his notorious reputation.
“I’m not seeing anything on the record that shows prior offenses,” Boyd told me as he looked through Gates’ file.
That doesn’t mean Gates didn’t have prior juvenile convictions. Boyd said the judge may not have had access to prior offenses that were sealed as part of a sentencing agreement or some other reason.
That sounded strange to some readers.
“It’s one thing to protect a juvenile from public shame, but a judge who is reviewing a case has to know,” said Billie Brown, 72, of Decatur. “How can they make a sensible decision when they don’t have all the facts?”
“That piece of information just surprised the hell out of me,” echoed Joseph. “I can’t understand any possible reason for that.”
Turns out that communication — especially between jurisdictions — is a real problem in the Georgia juvenile system and hampers judges’ ability to make informed decisions when it comes to repeat offenders.
“It’s not like the adult system where we have GCIC,” said Joe Vignati, assistant commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.
GCIC is the computerized system that keeps arrest and prosecution records from local and state police agencies across the state. If a prosecutor pulls a “rap sheet” for a suspect, that’s where they get it — unless the suspect is a juvenile.
“We don’t have a system like that for juveniles in Georgia,” Vignati said.
Pilot project aims to share data
That means there is limited information sharing among juvenile courts, a situation made more complicated because Georgia has two juvenile court system. Twenty-two counties, mostly large urban ones like Fulton, operate their own juvenile courts, while the rest of the state is on a separate state system.
As you might expect, these courts don’t have an efficient way to share information with each other.
“A youth could be on probation in one county and offend (in another) and the other county wouldn’t know,” Vignati said.
Vignati said a fix to that serious communication failure is in the pilot phase right now. The Juvenile Data Exchange will allow for past criminal data and “risk assessments” to be shared across jurisdictions, he said.
It’s an idea championed by Lovett, the late judge who sentenced Gates.
Would such information sharing have resulted in a different outcome for Gates? Hard to say.
Detailed information about juvenile records are generally not made public, but Gates’ prior run-ins with the law appear to be within Fulton County, rather than across jurisdictional lines. That would suggest the problem lies within Fulton County, perhaps in the way information is shared with judges.
Both Boyd and Vignati said there are other possibilities as well. Gates’ prior appearances in juvenile court may not have resulted in convictions because witnesses didn’t appear or the district attorney’s office decided not to prosecute because the evidence was weak. It’s a complicated system that is hard to explain to the public, Vignati said.
Whatever the cause, residents expect better protection and communication from their government than they got here.