A federal judge in Atlanta who once placed the Fulton County Jail in receivership has proposed to solve the jail's chronic overcrowding problems by directing that people arrested for misdemeanors be issued a citation and a court summons rather than being taken to jail.
U.S. District Senior Judge Marvin H. Shoob offered the idea, which he said he was willing to back up with a court order, in a meeting in chambers Thursday with Fulton County officials, including Superior Court Chief Judge Doris L. Downs, Sheriff Ted Jackson and Fulton County Attorney R. David Ware. Assistant state attorney general Joseph J. Drolet represented the state at the meeting.
Shoob's idea includes letting individuals charged with misdemeanors post signature bonds rather than being jailed until a judge is available to set bond or they make a first appearance in court.
Shoob added that “close calls” on whether to jail misdemeanor defendants “should err in the interest of security.”
County officials appeared to be largely supportive of Shoob's proposal. Shoob directed Lisa L. Kung—the executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights whose organization initiated the jail-conditions litigation in 2004—to prepare formal recommendations on which he can base a court order.
After the meeting, Downs said that Shoob's proposal echoes that of a blue-ribbon commission headed by Atlanta attorney Emmet J. Bondurant that strongly advocated a similar proposal in 2006—that police must secure an arrest warrant within hours of making a misdemeanor arrest in order to detain someone in the county jail.
Booking individuals charged with misdemeanors, processing them, housing and feeding them until a first court appearance—when, frequently, the arresting officer fails to appear and prompts an immediate dismissal of the charges—“is a huge drain on our resources,” Downs said.
What prompted the meeting in Shoob's chambers was the judge's long-standing concern with overcrowding at the jail. His proposal stemmed, in part, from an op-ed article published earlier this month in The New York Times citing a criminal justice expert at the University of Arizona who referenced data that, according to the Times, “overwhelmingly support the idea that locking up low-risk nonviolent offenders makes them worse, not better.”
Shoob said his proposal also was shaped by calls he receives at home from people taking advantage of his listed telephone number.
He said he has heard from people who were taken to jail, rather than issued citations, for DUI arrests made in their own driveways or when there was another person in the car who could serve as a designated driver. Shoob also referred to the recent arrests of two Princeton University students who were charged by Atlanta police with first-degree forgery and jailed overnight for, allegedly, using phony identification at a local night club.
The judge suggested that police may be overcharging suspects—a practice that aggravates jail overcrowding.
At the meeting, court-appointed jail monitor Calvin Lightfoot noted that grim sanitary conditions and faltering air conditioning have improved notably since Jackson became the sheriff last January, estimating that 90 percent of the court-ordered standards have been met.
But overcrowding, Lightfoot added, remains chronic and intractable.
Shoob, Kung and Atlanta lawyer Theodore H. Lackland, who is the sheriff's attorney, all suggested during the meeting that Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington has, so far, indicated little interest in adopting a policy of issuing citations for misdemeanors rather than arresting and jailing suspects.
Shoob also said Pennington had informed him that he was opposed to the judge's misdemeanor proposal because he was concerned that individuals charged with misdemeanors would not show up for court if they were issued citations rather than being jailed.
Lightfoot suggested that Pennington is operating under orders from the mayor and City Council to clear city streets of the panhandlers and the homeless, saying Pennington had told him, “We can't have these people walking around the city,” and referred to them as “eyesores.”
On Friday, Pennington said that he was not aware that city police were arresting homeless people simply to get them off the streets. And, he said, “I've never been opposed to people being issued a citation for a misdemeanor” unless it were associated with a violent crime or a threat such as domestic abuse. “Most people arrested for misdemeanors are released anyway and get out [of jail] on their own recognizance,” he said.
But the chief added that issuing misdemeanor citations would have to be contingent on a suspect's proper identification. “If they don't have proper ID, there is no way of verifying who they are,” he said. “That would pose a problem.”
Jackson's chief jailer, Charles Felton, also noted that the jail routinely houses a significant population of mentally ill inmates who were arrested on nuisance misdemeanors. Mentally troubled inmates sent to Grady Memorial Hospital for treatment are often channeled by Grady right back to the county jail he said.
In addition, jail inmates with mental disorders frequently are the inmates “who will stay there forever because they don't even get hearing dates,” Lightfoot observed.
Lackland suggested that there should be some procedure for removing mentally ill inmates from the criminal process and, instead, diverting them to treatment programs. Lackland suggested that if the city continues to deliver misdemeanor defendants to the county jail, the city could be added to the current federal jail suit as a defendant.
But Jackson warned that if city police were ordered not to jail misdemeanor suspects, they might simply inflate the charges to felonies, adding that the jailing of the two Princeton students—who were later released on a signature bond—appeared to be a perfect illustration of that practice.
Shoob said at the close of the meeting that he hopes to crystallize the Southern Center's misdemeanor recommendations in a court order. “That way, the judge will take the heat,” he said, adding that he won't be bothered by any potential political fallout.
“I don't want to spend county money housing people for two, three or four days when it's not necessary. … I don't want anybody in jail who doesn't have to be in jail,” Shoob said.
“When a federal judge says, 'This is the way its going to be, that's the way it will be,'” he added. “That order takes priority over everybody, including the City of Atlanta.”
The case is Harper v. Fulton County, No. 1:04-cv-1416.