In early March, 61-year-old Freddie Collins appeared in front of Judge Ethelyn Simpson in Athens-Clarke County State Court. Collins had been in jail since last November. Prior to that he was homeless and sleeping outside. Panhandling was his livelihood.
Collins’ homelessness got him in trouble. He was arrested on numerous occasions for panhandling, threatening passersby who chose not to give, urinating and masturbating in public and entering buildings where he was not welcome. All but one of his alleged offenses—a burglary—have been misdemeanors.
In addition to having no place to lay his head, some of us who know him thought Collins suffered from mental health-related issues, including early-onset dementia.
At his Mar. 5 appearance before Magistrate Court Judge Ethelyn Simpson, Collins stood in front of a deputy sheriff’s desk inside the Clarke County jail, staring into a laptop screen. Dressed in orange garb and wearing a headset, Collins strained to see who and what he was looking at, until he recognized Simpson’s voice. “Is that you, Judge Simpson?” Collins asked from the jail. “How you been doing? I miss you.”
Collins’ hearing lasted less than 15 minutes. Unbeknownst to him, the prosecution and defense, with the judge’s blessing, were sending him to a mental hospital in Augusta to determine if he was competent to stand trial. Collins is likely to be confined at the hospital indefinitely and, once evaluated, will either return to Athens having been “restored to competency” and therefore able to answer to the criminal charges, or find himself institutionalized somewhere else for a long, long time.
At the bench trial’s conclusion, Simpson told Collins that “they” were going to take good care of him. “Good luck to you, Mr. Collins,” she said. As he stared blankly into the laptop camera, it was clear that Collins had no idea what had just transpired. “Just one question,” he asked the judge. “When do I get out?”
“Unfortunately,” Judge Simpson responded before signing off, “I can’t answer that question for you, Mr. Collins.”
Collins is one of the hundreds of criminal defendants—some of whom are in jail, others out on bond—who have had their cases heard remotely during this past year. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, courtrooms have mostly gone virtual, meaning that the court officers—judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and probation officers—appear in person in the courtroom, while defendants appear from the jail or from their home, some even from their workplace or automobiles. Defendants appearing remotely have their cases continued or set for trial, plead guilty or admit to violating terms of their probation. Many are sentenced to long terms of probation, jail or prison. Some are barred from their homes or neighborhoods; others are banned from Athens-Clarke County altogether.
While remote courtroom proceedings do keep the system moving, much of what happens is lost in translation during these virtual legal hearings, even when defendants do not have the cognitive limitations of a Freddie Collins. Defendants appearing remotely cannot see everyone in the courtroom because cameras are focused on only the judge. They are unable to hear clearly people speaking in the courtroom, particularly when the court officers don’t use the microphones properly. And the defendant’s lawyer is not physically sitting by their side in the courtroom anymore, leaving the defendant at a disadvantage when unable to communicate privately with the person representing them. Important legal documents to read or sign are not available to defendants who appear remotely.
It’s been a strange and demanding year for everyone who’s working—or caught up—in the ACC criminal legal system. Not only are most criminal proceedings happening virtually, but for those who have to be physically present in the courthouse, there are temperature checks at the door, COVID questions to answer, color-coded wristbands to wear, courtroom benches marked with stickers or masking tape for socially distanced seating, face coverings to wear and sani-wipes and hand soap dispensers visible throughout the building.
Early on in the pandemic, the courthouse was shut down twice after employees tested positive for the virus; not too long ago, unsuspecting prisoners brought the virus to one of the courtrooms where they were appearing in person. Dozens of people have been turned away at the courthouse door because their temperature was not normal or they were coughing or said they’d been in proximity to someone who recently tested positive.
We who are with the Athens Area Courtwatch Project have also noted some changes during this past year. Some have been discussed openly, but others have largely gone unreported.
Let’s start with the jail. Leading up to the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, the Clarke County jail consistently held between 400-450 prisoners. To our legal system’s credit, beginning in late March of last year, there has been a collaborative effort on the part of judges, probation officers and lawyers to reduce the jail population. Suspects who otherwise might have been arrested and jailed were cited instead by police officers. Inmates who did end up in jail were seen by a magistrate judge within 24 hours of their arrest to have their bonds set. The number of non-cash bonds increased fairly dramatically as well. Others who’d been confined but unable to make bond previously were brought before judges and had their cash bonds reduced. Some probation warrants were lifted.
This concerted effort to look closely at who was locked away in our jail resulted in the jail population dropping to 246 women and men by Apr. 26, 2020. The number of people in jail remained under 300 through April, May, June and July. In August, the jail population edged above 300. Since then and until today, the jail’s population has averaged around 350, but still well below the pre-pandemic numbers.
Perhaps the most significant change happened with cases handled in Municipal and State courts—misdemeanor offenses that are handled by the solicitor general’s office. In 2019, over 18,000 traffic and arrestable misdemeanor cases were referred to Municipal Court, with 2,212 of those cases dismissed by the solicitor. But in 2020—the pandemic year—only 8,833 misdemeanor cases were referred to Municipal Court, with 4,613 dismissed. The dramatic reduction in misdemeanor cases brought and dismissed in Municipal Court holds true in State Court, too: In 2019, 2,372 cases were referred for prosecution and 683 dismissed. In 2020, the referral number dropped to 1,978 and dismissals rose to 1,347.
Also, in January 2021, newly elected District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez reviewed more than 2,600 felony cases her office inherited, with an eye toward dismissing at least some of them.
Perhaps the rush to prosecute at every level of the criminal legal system will slow. The numbers above ought to give us pause: Do we really need to subject so many of our citizens to arrest, prosecution, jail and prison? What do we need to do differently going forward to minimize the use of incarceration?
There are, of course, some troubling effects the pandemic has had on our criminal legal system. For one year, there were no jury trials held in Athens-Clarke County. (Jury trials resumed Mar. 29.) Likewise, grand jury proceedings were halted, meaning individuals charged with felony offenses could not be indicted. When someone hasn’t been indicted, their guaranteed right to a speedy trial becomes moot. Also, under normal conditions, when someone has been held in jail without bond for 90 days, they are entitled to a bond. This hasn’t been happening because of the absence of grand jury proceedings. (Grand juries are set to resume in late April.) There is a backlog of pending trials—non-indicted defendants who are presumed innocent, and burgeoning caseloads for our already overtaxed public defenders.
Perhaps the year of COVID has given us a window through which we now might look with fresh sets of eyes at how our community’s criminal legal system can better function. What can we do going forward to continue to reduce the number of people in our county jail? Should cash bail go the way of the dinosaur? Do our police have to arrest, overcharge and jail so many people after all? Isn’t it time to admit that systemic racism fuels mass incarceration? Can we come together to agree with Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The Athens Area Courtwatch Project is an all-volunteer group that monitors local courtrooms. For more information, email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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