By Dave Williams | Capitol Beat News Service
The partial shutdown of the court system in Georgia during the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to the crime wave plaguing Atlanta and other cities, a representative of the state’s prosecutors said Tuesday.
“We have to get our courts operating again,” Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, told members of a legislative committee. “If we get COVID under control, jails will be able to hold people longer.”
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston asked the House Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee last spring to hold hearings this summer to examine what’s behind a rise in violent crime across the state — particularly in and around Atlanta — and look for solutions.
A crime wave that began during the early months of the pandemic last year in Atlanta and other large U.S. cities has picked up momentum this year. Gov. Brian Kemp responded in April by forming a multi-agency Crime Suppression Unit to work with local police departments to address the worrisome trend.
Col. Chris Wright, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, told the committee Tuesday the unit is making progress.
Since April, members of the unit have made 10,953 traffic stops resulting in 7,618 citations, he said. They have made 285 arrests for driving under the influence and 207 for reckless driving, while arresting 188 people on warrants, including 11 murder suspects, he said.
Wright said the agency’s board voted last week to make the Crime Suppression Unit permanent and assign 10 state troopers to full-time duty with the unit in metro Atlanta.
But Skandalakis said there’s a limit to what law enforcement can do to fight violent crime when a lack of indictments and jury trials has created a backlog of pending criminal cases. The backlog is causing jails to become overcrowded with suspects awaiting trial, which forces authorities to release repeat offenders charged with violent crimes on bond, he said.
“We can’t arrest our way out of the problems occurring today,” he said. “With the pandemic, we’ve had a perfect storm of repeat offenders with access to firearms.”
Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said the delay in prosecuting cases is promoting a lack of accountability in the criminal justice system.
“It’s creating a general level of disrespect,” he said. “Many people think there’s no consequences for their actions.”
But there have been some successes. Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant testified Tuesday that the level of gun violence in the city went down after his department, working with the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, launched Operation Phoenix targeting the most violent offenders.
Another initiative aimed at crime around nightclubs also has paid off, Bryant said.
“We have begun to see the level of violence, especially downtown and in Buckhead, take a hit,” he said.
Several witnesses who appeared before the committee Tuesday said more state funding to hire more prosecutors and law enforcement officers would help.
Kemp recently committed up to $7 million from the Governor’s Emergency Fund to help finance the Crime Suppression Unit.
Ralston has proposed putting $75 million toward boosting law enforcement and mental health services in Georgia.
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the state Senate, is calling for a $250 million tax credit to raise funds for crime fighting.