By John Schaffner
Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard, Jr., while addressing a recent meeting of the Northwest Community Alliance (NCA), was critical of the Atlanta City Council for recently removing an ordinance that allowed police to arrest loiterers and people in suspicious situations as well as the point system presently being used in juvenile justice cases.
Howard, who became District Attorney in 1997, also cautioned against doing away with no-knock warrants—which he says serve a valuable purpose—on the basis of one case where the no-knock warrant may or may eventually be determined to be the real cause of an innocent person’s death.
The DA told a group of some 50 residents and business people representing neighborhoods of southwest Buckhead and northwest Atlanta at the March 21 meeting, the juvenile justice point system being used fails because the juveniles have realized that if they do not cross a certain point threshold, they do not go to jail. “The system has become counter-productive,” he told the group. “I think we need to make an adjustment in the point system. I think it is out of kilter,” he added.
Responding to a question about criminals being put back out on the street on bond when they maybe should be retained in custody, Howard answered, “Our Fulton County Jail is too small. And, if you see one of our county commissioners, tell them.
“According to federal court dictates, we are only allowed to keep 2,250 people in the Fulton County Jail,” he explained. “Because the jail is too small, our judges have released people on bond who should not be released. Forty percent of the people charged with murder are on bond. Of the people charged with trafficking in cocaine, 100 percent of them are on bond.”
The district attorney spent much of his talk recounting challenges faced since taking office, changes made in the department and results from those changes.
Howard said the first day he reported to work he saw beautiful computers on all the staff’s desks, but he didn’t immediately know that they were not connected. “One of the first things we had to do at the DA’s office was establish a case management system. Our case management system at the time consisted of those little four-by-eight index cards.” He said the office at the time was handling about 22,000 cases.
A second priority, he said, was to organize. “We did not have special units at the time, so all of the lawyers just worked in general capacities.” He said now the department prides itself with its division of labor.
“WE have put together a major felony unit that handles all of our homicides. Crimes against women and children, our victims witness unit, cold case unit, white collar crime unit and major drug units were all put together since 1997.”
He said he estimated that the department faced a backlog of about 14,000 cases in 1998. In 1997, it took the department about 111 days to indict or charge someone who was in jail. It took about 265 days to charge someone who was on bond.
“What that meant was that we had an overcrowded jail in Fulton County,” he explained. At the time, there were about 4,300 people in the Fulton Jail, with “people sleeping on the floor.” He said the present jail population has been reduced to 2,250.
He attributes the change to the “complaint rule” in the DA’s office. “We have set up a 24-hour operation, charging criminal cases immediately. Rather than taking 11days, we can now charge the same case in less than 30 minutes.”
Howard said that in 1997 the estimate was there were “1,600 unindicted people in jail for more than 90 days. I am proud to say, as of today, the average number of people in the Fulton County Jail unindicted over 45 days is only six. Ninety-five percent of the cases that arise in Fulton County now are charged within the same year,” he added.
He said the complaint rule in his department now means “rather than having old cases that we are bringing to trial, we are now bringing fresh cases. We aren’t losing as many witnesses. So, as a result, our conviction rate has gotten a lot better.” He said the department is now at a conviction rate of 82 percent for all cases.
He pointed out that in 1993 a report showed that convictions in sex crime cases were at only 25 percent, with the average sentence being nine years. At present, he said, the conviction rate for such cases is 85 percent with an average sentence of nearly 16 years.
He stated with pride that the violent crime rate in Atlanta between 1996 and 2005 had decreased by 47.3 percent.
“I believe part of the duty of the District Attorney is to prevent crime,” he told the audience. Among the programs that have been instituted to help prevent crime are: the Community Prosecution Program, with three prosecutors presently working directly in different parts of the city; the Legal Lives Junior District Attorney Program and Perkerson Elementary School Reading Program which get youths involved; the ACT (Abolish Chronic Truancy) Program and Partnership for Perfect Attendance Program, both of which are aimed at keeping youths in school and off the streets where they can commit crimes.
Howard said one of the best ways to prevent crime is one word: “college” (meaning graduating more youths from the public schools and getting them college educations).
The NCA, which is an alliance of some 16 neighborhoods in southwest Buckhead and northwest Atlanta as well as business leaders, met for the first time at its new venue, the Rolling Roll restaurant at Northside Drive and I-75. The group had met for years at the Holiday Inn, at Howell Mill Road and I-75, which is being demolished for a new development.