March 27, 2019

Commission Tackles Criminal Justice Reform

City Dope

Ten years ago, as many as 500 people might be in the custody of the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office on any given day—some sleeping on mats on the floor, others housed at a private facility in South Georgia. After a number of criminal justice reforms took effect at the state and local level, the number of inmates at the Clarke County Jail stood at 348 last Friday.

Both state prison and county jail populations have been declining since Gov. Nathan Deal and the state legislature began easing decades of tough-on-crime laws, with jails now at 78 percent capacity, down from 99 percent in 2010. At the same time, both property and violent crime rates have dropped as well, according to statistics kept by the FBI.The Athens-Clarke County Commission wants to keep those trends going.

Past commissions grappled with jail overcrowding and criminal justice reform in 2003 and again in 2008, implementing measures like special courts for people with mental health or addiction issues, pretrial diversion for nonviolent first offenders, a halfway house where inmates are released to go to work during the day and pop-up legal clinics where people can learn how to get their records expunged.  

The commission set out to tackle criminal justice reform again at a work session Mar. 20, considering recommendations from Municipal Court Judge Ryan Hope, representing other judicial and law enforcement officials. They include issuing tickets rather than arresting people, expanding pretrial services and increasing access to social services, among others.

Last year, the state legislature passed a law instructing judges to take into consideration the financial situation of an arrestee when setting bail. The law allows judges to release people accused of most misdemeanors and local ordinance violations on their own recognizance if they sign a document promising to show up for their court date.

“It was a good first step,” Hope said. However, the bill didn’t go as far as reform advocates wanted it to go. Furthermore, Hope suggested revising the current bond schedule to include OR, or own recognizance, bonds.

Another form of bail reform on the state level is to reduce the number of arrests by issuing misdemeanor citations. Essentially, individuals who are suspected of misdemeanor crimes such as shoplifting or possession of marijuana would not be arrested on the scene, but cited and released instead.

That reform was set to go into effect earlier; however, local law enforcement stated they felt the new reform was “dropped on them,” since it required suspects to be fingerprinted when cited and for officers to run background checks on those individuals. Hope said Athens-Clarke County and UGA police lack the equipment to fingerprint on the scene. Another bill is likely to pass the legislature this year that will give law enforcement other means to identify suspects on the scene, Hope said. The cite-and-release policy is now set to go into effect July 1.

Another recommendation was to review arrest and jail data and improve access to social services. This recommendation comes after ACCPD saw the success of the Crisis Intervention Response Team, a unit consisting of one police officer, Robie Cochran, and one clinical social worker, Katie McFarland, the program manager for accountability courts at Advantage Behavioral Health Systems, a nonprofit that contracts with state and local governments to handle addiction and mental health.

In 2017, McFarland and Cochran identified a total of 1,320 out of 18,042 cases involving mental illness. The two were then able to link 121 individuals to appropriate treatment. In 2018, the team was able to link 140 individuals to mental health treatment.

“I’ve seen the numbers, and they’re pretty amazing,” said Commissioner Jerry NeSmith. “The biggest mental health facility is the jail. They need treatment, not jail.”

NeSmith noted the police department has requested for an additional social worker to add to the team, a request that a majority of commissioners said they are in favor of.

Hope said expanding CIT would “be tremendous” because more individuals could be diverted from the courts if they were suffering from mental health problems, and can receive appropriate care early on rather than be jailed.

Over 90 percent of ACCPD officers have completed Crisis Intervention Training, which focuses on how to respond to an individual facing a mental health crisis. Commissioner Tim Denson said he wants to see all officers CIT trained. Mayor Kelly Girtz said he would include additional funding for CIT in his proposed 2020 budget.

Accountability courts can require defendants to go into treatment for mental health, for instance through Advantage Behavioral Health Systems. But one obstacle is the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which includes privacy provisions preventing courts from finding out if people are receiving care.

Other areas of reform mentioned by the commission include beefing up pretrial services and supervision, sending notifications to individuals about their court hearings and improving reentry support after an individual is released from jail or prison.