Fulton County’s district attorney and sheriff appeared before the Board of Commissioners to plead for the financial support dealing with a rise in violent crime and a massive case backlog created by COVID-19 closures and mismanagement from before the pandemic.

District Attorney Fani T. Willis told the commissioners at the end of their July 14 meeting that her office needed $7.66 million for 2021 and more than $54 million in 2022 to handle the case backlog and rise in crime.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, shown in her welcome message after taking office, said county staff was making it more difficult to get the resources her office needs to clear a backlog of cases created by a rise in crime, the pandemic and her predecessor’s action.

“Crime is [at] an all-time high. We’re getting ready to be in a position where we may have to release murderers. This is not a third world country. This is Fulton County,” Willis said.

Fulton County had 61 murder cases as of July 13, 2020, with that number jumping to 76 cases during the same time period a year later, Willis said. Rapes rose from 51 to 95.

One of those murders she described was that of Marlene Diane Colon, a popular fitness instructor who was killed in her Fawndale Way home in Sandy Springs on April 5, 2020. A tenant in her home has been charged in Colon’s death.

That rise in crime was one of three issues that created the current backlog of cases, including mismanagement from 2016 to 2019, a COVID backlog and the rise in crime.

More than 6,000 unindicted cases are from 2016 to 2019. Another 7,805 unindicted cases from March 2020 to June 2021 make up the COVID backlog. And with the 86% increase in rapes and 25% increase in murders in the past year, the numbers keep rising.

Putting a deadline on the backlog crisis is the Supreme Court of Georgia order, which is requiring Willis’ office to investigate and indict all cases in the Fulton County jail before Aug. 13.

Chief Judge Christopher S. Brasher of the Superior Court of Fulton County was able to issue a 30-day extension to the deadline, giving the Fulton DA’s office until Sept. 13. But Willis said without more funding, more than 1,430 defendants in cases of violence may be released into the community.

County staff blocks resources that her office and the Sheriff’s Office need, she said. For example, Sheriff Pat Labat and Willis said finance staff told them that even though they managed to save money on salaries, they couldn’t use those funds. 

“What I have told your county manager … is I don’t have the bandwidth anymore for these games. I need to get to the business of solving crime,” Willis said.

Labat said the Sheriff’s Office also has a staff shortage. Fifteen detention officers left the Fulton County Jail in the past 30 days to work somewhere else. But he sees Sandy Springs offering a $7,000 hiring bonus and $3,000 for relocation for law enforcement officers. Cobb County offers $5,000 as a bonus with $2,000 to relocate.

Her request came during the same meeting in which the commissioners were told by Alton Adams, the county’s deputy chief operating officer for public safety, that the county needed to spend $75 million over two years to hire 300 personnel and prepare 75 additional courtrooms to handle the case backlog. Additional staff for the district attorney’s office is included in that plan.

“To give you a sense of scale, the total number of cases by court system, approximately 34,000, for superior court, almost 40,000 for state and for magistrate court 132,000 cases,” Adams said.

Adams told commissioners both mothballed courtrooms and nontraditional locations, such as space in the Central Library, would be needed. These courtrooms would require technology upgrades, and new personnel would need laptops for their jobs.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.