By Katie Fallon
An April 27 meeting between the city council and Sandy Springs’ municipal court judges included the shared belief in an overloaded system and an overworked staff.
The meeting largely focused on processing offenders as quickly, but also judiciously, as possible. A negative aspect of the court that all in attendance agreed on is that the relatively small council chambers in which municipal court is held will sometimes fill with a few hundred people for one court session.
District 2 Councilwoman Dianne Fries said she didn’t want the City of Sandy Springs to treat its court patrons as uncaring like other cities.
“They may be criminals, but they’re our criminals,” Fries said. “The thing that bothers me is I’ll walk in and see two to three hundred people and I don’t know how to fix that.”
Both Fries and District 4 Councilwoman Ashley Jenkins said the biggest court-related complaint they receive from their constituents is the amount of time offenders spend waiting for their case to be addressed. The need for more scheduled court sessions was brought up by both council members and Judge Jim Anderson, who also noted the effect the long sessions have on not only offenders, but judges. He said it would benefit the city to not only add more court sessions, but one or two additional staff members to process citation payments.
“The main limiting factor in providing citizens efficient service is the availability of the courtroom,” Anderson said. “For judges to sit there for three, four and five hours, it’s exhausting. I don’t feel I’m doing my best job after sitting there for five hours.”
A goal of processing between 200 and 250 cases in two hours was mentioned, but Anderson said even that number was problematic. Judge Larry Young, for instance, noted that in a recent Friday court session, he heard 426 cases that included 350 defendants. He said it took him six and a half hours to get through that caseload.
City Manager John McDonough said the overcrowding of the municipal court is due to the fact when the city’s police department hit the streets, it did so with three times as many officers as Fulton County previously used to patrol the same area. The new officers, McDonough said, now write four times as many citations.
District 1 Councilman Dave Greenspan said the biggest complaints he receives are about courtroom decorum.
Even Judge Larry Young admitted to starting courtroom proceedings in a more jocular mood before soon witnessing the court fall apart. He said the formality of the first 15 to 20 minutes of opening statements and instructions was crucial for offenders to understand what was going on.
“That sets the tone,” Young said. “It lets people know this is serious. We really have to be careful to advise people of their rights so they probably get it.”
Mayor Eva Galambos also brought up an invitation from Fulton County State Court Judge Susan Forsling to send the city’s DUI cases to her rehabilitation program. The cases bound over to Fulton would only include offenders with their third or higher DUI.
Anderson, however, said the change was not necessary.
“Frankly, we don’t have that many second DUI’s,” Anderson said. “It wouldn’t change the caseload that much.”
Similarly, McDonough said the disposition of a DUI case sent to Fulton County might not coincide with the city’s manner of handling drunk driving cases. Currently, less than five percent of Sandy Springs’ DUI cases are bound over to Fulton County.