Chaos Inbound For Municipal Court of Atlanta

Here is a typical courtroom in the Municipal Court of Atlanta. Notice how there are no court personnel in the photo? You can expect to see more courtrooms like this in Atlanta if Mayor Shirley Franklin has her way and causes utter chaos with her proposed cuts to the Office of City Solicitor and Office of the Public Defender. To be sure, law enforcement will suffer, defendant’s rights will be at risk and the public will be left holding the proverbial bag. We now have the numbers and the alleged logic behind Mayor Franklin’s proposals.

I’ve obtained a copy of the May 13, 2008 powerpoint presentation from the Office of the Mayor for the Atlanta City Council regarding proposed budget and policy changes for FY2009.

To break it down, back in 2002 the budget for City Judicial Agencies was $30.5 million. By 2008 that amount had been slashed to $16.8 million. Next year all that is proposed is $11.6 million. In essence, over the last eight years, these offices have seen a 60% cut in their budgets while other departments continue to bloat. But more on that in a moment.

In four points, Franklin makes clear what she proposes:

1. Reduce the number of operating courtrooms from nine to seven.
2. Reduce personnel in the Office of the Public Defender.
3. Reduce personnel in the Office of the Solicitor.
4. Move the Office of the Solicitor into the Department of Law.

Franklin also notes that the total caseload for these offices is on the decline and, magically, is somehow able to “project” the total number of crimes that are expected to be committed in FY2009. Curiously, this omniscient ability Franklin possesses concerning future crime rates did not serve her in the months leading up to the current budget shortfall. The problem with the statistics put forward is that since 2001, the total caseload for the Municipal Court of Atlanta has always been in excess of 200,000 cases a year with the exception of 2007 when the caseload dropped to approximately 150,000. From there, Franklin assumes that only good times are ahead and drinks her elixir of truth to determine that crime would never increase again, even though the clear caseload burden has been consistently higher and, some would say, 2007 numbers were an exception and not the rule under trend lines.

Anyway, since concern about future crime is pesky and shouldn’t figure into the “big picture”, Franklin has relied on a series of recommendations from the Boston Consulting Group to make her proposals. Concerning the reduction in total courtrooms, according to the Mayor, “[t]he proposed reduction in the number of operating courtrooms will reduce courtroom coverage requirements by 70% from the 2004 experience.”

Further, the Mayor’s presentation notes:

– Workloads for most court staff (e.g., courtroom personnel, solicitors, public defenders) are largely dependent on the number of dockets (i.e., court sessions) held on a weekly basis.

– Calendars are scheduled for 8 a.m. – 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, providing time for attorneys to meet with clients in mid-day as well as all day Friday.

Mayor Franklin has absolutely no idea how the criminal justice system works. While she points to the fact that the total number of dockets would decrease from 180 (in 2004) to 56 (in 2009) and jubilantly suggests that that is a 70% reduction in total dockets which permits the lowering of staff levels, she doesn’t understand that these dockets in the Municipal Court DO NOT wrap up in 120 minutes each day. These are laborious calendars that take up the majority of the morning and afternoon. Solicitors and public defenders hardly have time to attend to their investigations already and have to conduct snap examination of cases on the fly without giving their responsibilities the time that is necessary. That isn’t their fault, mind you; it’s a symptom of the Mayor not understanding the job that these attorneys have to perform on a day-to-day basis.

Just because docket levels are cut by 70% does not mean that you need fewer Officers of the Court. It just means that you are packing up more cases into smaller boxes each and every day.

In total, Mayor Franklin proposes the following staff levels:

– The FY2009 proposed budget for the Office of the Solicitor includes a reduction of total staff from 54 to 20.

– The FY2009 proposed budget for the Office of the Public Defender includes a reduction of total staff from 28 to 11.

– The FY2009 proposed budget includes funding for 13 solicitors and nine public defenders which should provide adequate coverage for absentees.

This is insanity. Each remaining public defender will see their case load increase from 1,200 cases per year to 2,300 cases per year, according to Candace Byrd, the chief public defender for the Municipal Court of Atlanta. Each Solicitor would be responsible for approximately 10,400 cases a year. Meanwhile, in DeKalb County, the typical county Assistant Solicitor-General handles about 120 cases a month. How can the accused be properly represented and the interests of the people appropriately raised when the Court simply becomes an assembly line of alleged justice? I grant that a goodly portion of these cases involve simple matters of speeding and improper lane change, but according to Mayor Franklin’s “Super Future Seeing Brain,” she admits that there are also going to be at least 5,738 DUI cases; 14,982 quality of life cases; 5,594 general ordinance cases; 2,953 housing and code enforcement violations and 6,012 general criminal cases including theft, possession of marijuana, etc. And that is assuming that some sort of mystical and massive drop in crime continues to grace the City.

As evidence to support her contention about the need for reductions, Mayor Franklin notes that “96% of all cases referred to the Public Defender are disposed of without testimony or trial.” So what?!? That isn’t the point of having a capable public defender and Solicitor in each courtroom.

All this seems to be part of a long-term effort to outsource the public defenders office in the Municipal Court. Great note is made by her of Kansas City, Seattle and Denver (which have private, outsourced public defender organizations) and Cleveland, St. Louis, Charlotte and Baltimore (which contract with the State Court to have their public defenders perform double duty). In addition, as Mayor Franklin laments, “The City of Atlanta is the only municipality in Georgia that operates an Office of the Public Defender in its municipal court.”

Hmmm, could that be because they handle 150,000 – 200,000 cases a year? If she were in the Municipal Court of Toccoa, Georgia then, sure, a public defender office might not be necessary. The last time I checked, though, Atlanta was the largest Municipality in Georgia. Yes, I’m sure I read that somewhere.

Finally, Franklin wants to move the Office of the City Solicitor under the direction of the Department of Law. Why? Because that’s how they do it in Kansas City, Seattle, Cleveland, Denver, St. Louis, Charlotte, Baltimore and Miami. But doesn’t that create the ability of certain bad people in the Executive Branch to have some fun with criminal cases? Oh, fear not, says the Mayor:

– A separate local prosecutor is the exception, not the rule.

– Ethical and professional obligations of attorneys protect against threat that political influence will impact prosecutors.

– [There are] no documented cases of executive branch influence on local prosecutors that we have been able to identify.

– Employees/citizens concerned about political influence of prosecution decisions have access to the Integrity Line to report concerns and they will be fully investigated.

Well, I certainly feel better! The fact is that this is the City of Atlanta and any opportunity to avoid an avenue of corruption should be taken. This is the wrong move and ultimately, even one case of improper influence will permanently corrupt any reputation the City Court may have. And, by the way, I don’t give a rip what happens in other cities. Is that how Franklin rules…by copying what everyone else is doing?

As John Sugg recently noted over at Creative Loafing, one thing that Franklin won’t copy from other cities is keeping other departments under her control from bloating:

In April 2007, I reported that under Franklin’s tenure, the city payroll has swollen by about 2,000 people, a 27 percent increase. The mayor’s aides tried all sorts of linguistic gymnastics to explain the increase, such as the sewer project. But all cities have major public works projects. Atlanta has 1,822 employees per 100,000 people. Charlotte has 1,080, Miami has 966 and Tampa has 1,363. Even eliminating the sewer repair workers, and Atlanta is still higher that Charlotte and Miami.

How about cutting some of that fat instead of the 50-75 jobs that actually do make a difference, Shirley?

Finally, Franklin has proposed to cut the caseload by decriminalizing certain offenses! Brilliant! Let’s make everything legal and then we can close down the Court permanently!

As the Mayor proclaims:

– Georgia is only one of a handful of states that treat routine traffic violations as criminal offenses.

– City has many quality of life offenses with criminal penalties that are treated as civil offenses in many other cities.

– Decriminalizing certain minor infractions and providing civil penalties could allow for further efficiencies in court operations.

– This reorganization of the Solicitor function will facilitate that coordinated and comprehensive review and allow for recommendation of code changes [for the consideration of the City Council].

Franklin’s lunacy knows no bounds. Court docket too heavy? Have less crimes! And if you just LOVE how Atlanta handles “quality of life” issues like panhandling now, just wait until they aren’t criminal offenses anymore! Don’t bother calling the Atlanta Police Department…you’ll have to deal with Code Enforcement. Yeah, that’ll clean up the City.

There is going to be a public hearing on Thursday, May 15th at 7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers of Atlanta City Hall to give the public an opportunity to comment on these proposals. If you care about the safety and security of Atlanta, you should attend.

Atlanta: the city too busy to have a working court system.

9 comments

  1. SpaceyG says:

    Good live blogging op, fer sure. But then I’d have to give up that 7pm cocktail party on Habersham. And my BFF there just got in these totally awesome, to-die-for custom-dyed curtains. Like in every room! She would have a royal hissy fit if I skipped her party for non-30305 stuff. (BFF’s got totally awesome private security 24/7 though. And her husband STILL works in the DA’s office! Daddy’s money sure comes in handy, doesn’t it?!)

  2. Rick Day says:

    I could think of once certain thing the City of Atlanta could decriminalize and tax, but you know, that would solve TOO MANY problems, yo?

  3. Harry says:

    To get to the same level of city workers per 100,000 as Charlotte, Atlanta would need to cut 4,000 jobs. They laid off 400 temporary workers and Solicitors Office workers – 10% of what’s needed while asking for a tax increase. Look for more, not less, public servants on the payroll after July 1. Just not in the Solicitors Office.

  4. The Comma Guy says:

    Rogue – isn’t also a function of the fact that the Solicitor’s Office isn’t the clearing house for all crimes, felony or misdemeanor, committed in Atlanta? Also, how much money is the court generating? Has there been a large drop-off in the amount since the staff cuts from a couple of years ago?

  5. Rogue109 says:

    The Comma Guy: The City Solicitor no longer is the clearing house for cases which are committed within the borders of the City but are bound over to State Court and Superior Court.

    I’ve already thrown away the PPT presentation (sorry), but I do not recall any numbers on monies generated by the court. It could have been there, but I just don’t recall.

    The fact is that 10,400 cases a year is a bit much for a single Solicitor and 2,400 is a bit hard to take for a PD when you look at comparable caseloads for Solicitors-General in metro area State Courts who are handling a mere fraction of that total.

  6. The Comma Guy says:

    Sorry, my previous post didn’t make the point I intended. What I meant was that isn’t this reduction in staffing a continuation of the process that began when the decision was made to stop using the Solicitor’s Office as the clearing house for all crimes, felony or misdemeanor, committed in Atlanta? I seem to remember a time when every case murder to speeding went through City Court before going on to the next step. This was also at the time when they were building the judicial palace in down town for the judges – a building that really seems a waste these days.

    One way to solve the problem with the overworked PD’s office is to no longer sentence folks to probation. Shifts the problem to Fulton County State Court.

    And many counties that have State Courts use the revenue generated through fine money to help fund the rest of the government. Try and look at see if there has been a recent trend in the numbers…and follow the money. If a metro county can expect $2mil or more a year, the City of Atlanta should have a much larger expectation.

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