Shedding Light on the Problem: Recidivism, Neighborhood Activism, and The Courts

Midtown Atlanta Neighborhood Association safety chair Randall Cobb, commenting in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about two stabbings in Piedmont Park, got it right:

“Crime has not gone down in the city, no matter what the city says they’re doing,” [he said] noting a spike in Midtown break-ins and armed robberies since 2007.

“It’s organized crime,” he said. “These are not crackheads looking for a quick turnaround. These guys are moving into a neighborhood and hitting it with everything they have.”

It’s recidivism.  It’s the failure of the courts, where a defendant has to experience a pretty darned unlucky day to end up being put in prison at the end of it.  Courts in Metro Atlanta are leaking like sieves.  They’re broken.  They have become vehicles for empathy, where judges call themselves “change agents” and victims and the public get treated like interlopers.  Prosecutors drop cases because they can’t handle their caseloads, or worse.  Cops don’t have the resources to work through a case and then show up in court for three or five or ten appearances, often on their own time.

Defense attorneys and defendants know they can make charges go away simply by asking for more time, by invoking delays, by exploiting the system in a thousand different ways.

It is too bad that residents who already pay taxes must then turn around and monitor the courts, and patrol their own neighborhoods, because City Hall and the Superior Court are failing so miserably in their duties.  But, there it is.  Luckily, there is no shortage of intelligent people willing to make these sacrifices, and the internet is now enabling them to share information in entirely new ways.

Court-watching is the new neighborhood patrol, as citizens realize that it is not enough to work with the police in their own neighborhoods.  They have to make sure that after an offender is caught, he does not catch an easy plea or an easy judge.

I’m hearing about all sorts of new court-watching efforts these days, not just in Atlanta, but around the country.  The best website I’ve seen comes out of Orlando, Florida, where two victims of life-altering domestic violence started going to court to observe the outcomes in other battering cases.  Ann Lickteig was beaten so brutally that she required several hours of neurosurgery: nevertheless, her batterer was acquitted.  Laura S. Williams lost her two-year old daughter when her ex-husband killed the child, and himself.  Somehow, these women find the strength to go to court every week and report on what goes on there.

The first thing most court-watchers realize, I think, is that what happens in a criminal courtroom is nothing like popular culture ideas about justice.  Consider this: as of 2002, the most recent federal numbers, one out of four armed robbers did not even get sentenced to prison after they were found guilty of the crime.  That makes armed robbery an even safer bet, for the robber that is, especially if he is a juvenile or does not yet have a record.  Judges’ routine abuse of first-offender rules make first-offender status a veritable get-out-of-jail free card, and sometimes two or three if nobody bothers to check to defendant’s record in other jurisdictions.  So why not stroll into Piedmont Park and pull a gun or a knife on someone?

Even when defendants get convicted, the sentences are usually risible.  The idea that we are too hard on defendants, that prison terms are unduly harsh and cruel, simply does not survive in the light of facts.  Beloved as these themes may be to Pew Center researchers, criminologists, and crusading journalists, it is not uncommon to discover that the man who got caught breaking into your back door has been caught and released, like some burglar fish, five, ten or twenty times in the past.  What is actually uncommon these days is to encounter a criminal who has not been through the system and let go again almost immediately.

Here is a typical post from Courtwatch Orlando:

Last week I saw a no contest plea in the case of State v. Eberson Florial (2009CF960) in front of Judge Bob LeBlanc. Florial was initially charged with Domestic Battery by Strangulation, but the formal charge was Felony Battery – Great Bodily Harm. Florial was sentenced to 2 days in jail with credit for time served (the Statute requires 5 days), enroll in a Batterers’ Intervention Program (BIP), and 18 months probation.

Where to begin?  Imagine being sentenced to two days in jail for the crime of Felony Battery — Great Bodily Harm.  The statute “requires” five days.  Five days?  And still, the judge did not enforce it?  The blogger here lays a good bit of blame on the state prosecutor for not asking for more, and that is a problem in Atlanta, too.  But when you look at a sentence like this, how can you not conclude that every party — from the legislature that permitted the sentencing, to the prosecutor who agreed to the plea, to the judge who did not enforce even the minimal law in this case — have utterly failed at their jobs?  Here is what the blogger thinks:

I am delighted to see the State include [Batterer’s Intervention Program] in the sentence (it’s not often we see this in felony court). The kudos to Judge LeBlanc are because he asked the State if there was also to be a no contact order or, at a minimum, a “no hostile” contact provision added to the sentence. The State admitted that it wasn’t part of the plea negotiations, but the judge included a “no hostile” provision in the sentence.

If the judges begin to hold the State accountable for negotiated sentences according to what Florida Statute requires, I think the judicial system will begin to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes more effectively than it sometimes does now.

“If judges begin to hold the State accountable for negotiated sentences according to what Florida Statute requires.”  In other words, judges and prosecutors in Florida are not following the law any more than judges and prosecutors in Atlanta.

And that is why the guy who climbed into your back window last month is climbing into your neighbor’s window right now.  It’s important to get more cops back on the streets (not least because they need to be paid for the time they spend preparing evidence for cases and appearing in court to testify), but that is only the beginning.

In Atlanta, several neighborhood groups have begun the process of watching the courts by sharing information about the criminal histories of defendants caught in their area.  Trolley Patrol, a fee-based protection service that covers several southeast Atlanta neighborhoods, has launched a website with information about court watching and information about arrestees.  The “i-neighbors” networks spread out over the city have become places where residents do their own crime mapping and even crime solving.

With the critical mass of anti-crime organizing going on in Atlanta right now, I hope it won’t be long before a more formalized program of watching the courts takes hold.  Just don’t expect elected officials, or the judiciary, to welcome this scrutiny.  They like things just the way they are.


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