The Athens Area Courtwatch Project began 18 months ago with a day-long training to empower volunteers to observe proceedings in Athens-Clarke County courtrooms. The project is an undertaking of Oconee Street United Methodist Church. Despite the pandemic, Courtwatch volunteers continue to monitor proceedings in magistrate, municipal, state and superior courts.
In the past six months, we’ve observed in nearly 100 courtrooms, witnessing as many as 1,000 defendants who’ve appeared at bond hearings, arraignments, pre-trial motions, probation revocations and plea deals. We’ve tracked the number of arrests and jail bookings made on a weekly basis, as well as the county’s jail population, with an eye on the racial makeup of those arrested and occupying jail cells. And, during this time of coronavirus, we are trying as best we can to determine what effect the virus is having on prisoners and staff at the jail and in the courtrooms.
Several court watchers continue to visit the courtrooms in person, but also are observing proceedings virtually. Thankfully, most judges have provided ways for the public and officers of the court to “attend” hearings via Star Leaf, WebEx, YouTube and Live Stream. Defendants out on bond can choose whether to appear in court in person or not. Until recently, all jailed defendants were appearing remotely from the jail’s small courtroom or interrogation booth. In the past several weeks, some judges have had prisoners transported to the courthouse, where they appear in person wearing leg irons and handcuffs, wrapped together with a belly chain.
Also as a response to the virus outbreak and its spreading, a March statewide order from Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton has effectively prohibited grand jury proceedings and jury trials. This order has meant that a large number of defendants in jail have not yet been before a grand jury that decides whether to indict them or not. Others in the jail who’ve been charged with misdemeanors and maintain their innocence are not able to go to trial. In normal times, the state has 90 days to indict someone, after which the defendant has the right to a bond. And we all know we are guaranteed the right to “a speedy trial.” Neither of these rights is presently available to criminal defendants in Athens-Clarke County, meaning for many an extended time in a jail cell or, out of desperation, a guilty plea to gain release from custody.
As we’ve observed ACC courtrooms over the past 18 months, we’ve found that our local criminal justice system, or as some (myself included) would call it, the criminal punishment system, functions mostly as a plea mill. The vast majority of defendants who are arrested, charged or indicted and often jailed are encouraged by prosecutors and defense lawyers to plead guilty, often to a lesser charge that doesn’t involve more jail or prison time. In 2019, for example, there were very, very few trials held in any of the ACC courts. These thousands of guilty pleas made throughout the course of a year’s time will mean that most defendants will, if not incarcerated, be (in misdemeanor courts) sentenced to months or (in felony court) years of probation. A probation sentence can mean the defendant must report regularly to a probation officer, and is often made to wear a GPS leg monitor, blow frequently into an alcohol-breath-detection device and pay a monthly probation fee (up to $40), as well as a fine and monetary restitution. Unless a defendant is given indigent status by a judge, the leg monitor and breathalyzer devices will also cost the defendant additional money. If a defendant violates any of the terms of their probation, it can be revoked and the defendant jailed or imprisoned for the remainder of their probationary sentence.
The ACC Public Defender’s office handles the vast majority of criminal cases that are processed through our misdemeanor and felony courts. On average, one public defender will have 100 or more active cases. As is the case statewide, most of these indigent clients are people of color. Earlier in August, the ACC Jail roster showed 289 men and women were locked up, 223 of whom were persons of color. During the week of Aug. 2–9, law enforcement arrested and booked into the jail 86 people, 57 of whom were non-white.This means that 77% of those incarcerated and 66% of those arrested were Black or brown.
While close to 80% of all ACC defendants are persons of color, the percentage of courtroom officers is over 90% white. Chief Magistrate Court Judge Patricia Barron is the only African-American jurist in Athens (soon to be joined by an African-American associate magistrate judge, Donnarell Green). Our interim district attorney is a white man; the lead public defender is a white man; all but three judges are white men.
In addition to the great majority of criminal defendants being persons of color, almost everyone who is caught up in our criminal punishment system is poor. Added to this reality, many of the women and men who face jail, prison or probation time suffer from serious mental health issues, struggle with substance abuse, are experiencing homelessness, or are dealing with all three simultaneously. Because our community’s resources are limited, poorly funded, or non-existent, oftentimes defendants have nowhere to land other than in a jail cell. Like so many Georgia communities, our mental health agencies are underfunded, our social service network is fractured, and there is a woeful lack of transitional or affordable housing for anyone needing this kind of safety net.
So, what’s the good news? Before the pandemic took firm hold on us all in mid-March, the jail population hovered between 425–475 people. Since April, the jail’s population has been reduced by just less than half, thanks to a collaborative effort on the part of judges, lawyers, probation officers and law enforcement personnel, who began providing many of those arrested next-day first-appearance bond hearings, issuing an increased number of OR (recognizance, non-cash) bonds, and holding weekly status hearings for defendants in jail who were unable to post the cash bonds they’d been given earlier. I say this is good news, and it is, but it will be even better news if, after this COVID-19 scourge is behind us, our courts and law enforcement will continue to arrest and jail people much less often, our elected officials will work to expand our social service network, and as a community we all can learn not to depend on a broken system to keep us safe and restore people to full humanity.
All of the Athens Area Courtwatch Project’s observers are volunteers. If you are interested in being trained and becoming a Courtwatch participant, contact John Cole Vodicka at email@example.com or 612-718-9307.
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