What can be done about crime in the neighborhoods around Georgia Tech? As reported by the AJC, the youths who have been arrested — and the ones who are yet to be caught — are perhaps the most dangerous type of criminal: immature and armed. As James Fetig, an administrator at Georgia Tech, observed:
“[o]ne concern is the age of the criminals. Police tell us they are between 16 and 19,” Fetig said. “This is not a time when young men tend to consider consequences. We are very concerned that one of these robberies could go terribly wrong and have terrible consequences.”
Here is another concern: young men charged with gun crimes often walk out of courtrooms in Atlanta with little or no punishment — merely emboldened to commit more crime. How often does this happen? Nobody will say. The DA’s office does not release such statistics. The AJC has done nothing to produce such numbers. The Fulton County Justices will not tell us. The Clerk of Court? Ha.
It is amazing that something so clearly in the public interest as the disposition and sentencing in criminal cases is secreted away from public scrutiny. Yet, there it is. And that is a major reason why people in Home Park and elsewhere throughout Atlanta will continue to live as prisoners in their own homes.
When you look at instances where prosecution and sentencing statistics have been released, it is easy to see why judges (and, sometimes, prosecutors) don’t wish for the public to know how they are spending their time. In Orlando, Florida, which has an active court-watching culture, the Orlando Sentinel conducted this shocking study of sentences handed down for gun crimes:
The state’s 10-20-Life law — passed by state legislators and signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999 — promised crime-weary voters that armed criminals would face long, no-bargain prison terms. Florida quickly spent $500,000 on newspaper, radio and TV ads spreading the message: “Pull a gun: 10 years. Fire a gun: 20 years. Shoot someone: 25 years to life.” . . .
[B]ut few suspects in Orange County get such tough mandatory penalties even as the campaign to end gun violence enters its 10th year, the Orlando Sentinel has found.
Only 5 percent of 7,437 suspects arrested in Orange County on gun charges from 2003 through 2007 received mandatory sentences, court and prison records show.
The record is even worse for suspects arrested with an AK-47 or other assault weapons, those military-style rifles that police officials say warrant the most serious punishment when misused. Just less than 2 percent of such cases in Orange County produced mandatory terms.
Do not believe that Atlanta is any different. It may be worse. It is the rule, not the exception, that offenders get a free pass on their first adult conviction. It is the rule, not the exception, that most cases get pled down, usually a process involving prosecutors agreeing to redefine the charge to avoid minimum mandatory laws. In Orlando:
Records show a third of all gun cases in Orange County were dropped by prosecutors who screen incoming cases. Additional cases were dismissed, bargained down or acquitted — casualties of evidence problems and the need to keep nearly 80,000 cases moving through justice system every year.
The vast majority of suspects receive very little punishment.
And when a defendant caught with a gun does not get charged, he may still qualify, the next time, for judges’ absurd passion for letting all “first time offenders” walk free. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out exactly how many times the Georgia Tech area defendants have been arrested and released, or allowed to plead down, as in the following?
What happened to Daryl Barndo Ford demonstrates why tough sentences are rare.
Four years ago, the 22-year-old was arrested in Orlando when drug agents seized a fully automatic assault rifle, a pistol and 16 grams of crack cocaine.
Because Ford was a felon with six prior arrests, state and federal laws prohibited him from having any type of firearm. When caught hiding under his mother’s bed, Ford had eluded three arrest warrants for weeks by sleeping in local motels rather than the family’s Clear Lake home.
The AR-15 rifle found in Ford’s locked bedroom had been converted illegally to fire automatically like a machine gun, according to police reports. Two ammunition magazines were taped together so the weapon could be reloaded instantly after firing a 20- or 30-shot burst.
As part of 10-20-Life, Ford faced a minimum three-year sentence if the office of Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar successfully prosecuted him as a felon with a firearm.
Problems arose when police did not want to disclose the identity of an informant who led them to Ford. And Ford’s mother would not say whether Ford had exclusive access to the locked bedroom. So prosecutors cut a deal.
Dropped were felony charges of dealing crack, possessing a machine gun, possessing a gun with altered serial numbers — a common sign of a stolen weapon — and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
Ford pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor.
His punishment: 23 days in jail.
Since then, Ford has been arrested six more times on drug and gun charges. His longest sentence to date: six months in county jail.
Ford has now accumulated a dozen known arrests for drug and gun charges. He is a repeat felon. And judges and prosecutors in Florida still have not obeyed state laws requiring them to sentence him to at least three, if not ten years behind bars.
How do people like Ford continue to walk? Why do judges get away with ignoring the will of the people, who have decided, legislatively, that certain crimes require mandatory minimum sentences? Usually, it appears, prosecutors simply do not try to put offenders away for the minimum time because they are overwhelmed by cases. Pleas must be negotiated in nearly all cases if prosecutors are going to have the time to prosecute anyone. Why is the system like this in the first place? Because, contrary to what the mayor and academicians and newspapers will tell you, we have lots of crime and lots of criminals.
We also release criminals back to the streets every day because the criminal bar has succeeded in twisting the system until it simply does not resemble a rational search for the truth. The ridiculous latitude in suppressing evidence, for example, efficiently and speedily re-delivers criminals to the streets, No other country has a system so hell-bent on excluding evidence from scrutiny.
And so, Daryl Ford loose on the streets with his dozen convictions is what we get. We get streets saturated with criminal activity, so much so that authorities are forced to simply throw up their hands and say: We know they’re guilty, but we have to let them go. We know they will eventually kill innocent people, but we don’t have the resources to even begin enforcing our own laws as they are written.
And still, the Pew Foundation and the editorialists and many criminologists keep telling us that the problem is too much incarceration, too harsh sentencing. These claims do not even begin to stand up to real evidence, of course:
Light sentences are no rarity in assault-weapons cases. In the 243 cases analyzed by the [Orlando] Sentinel that went to court, prosecutors won 112 convictions, but just seven suspects received the 10-20-Life penalties. In 43 cases, the state dropped the gun-related charges in return for pleas to lesser crimes, such as possession of drug paraphernalia.
Of those convicted, 83 served less than a year in jail. The median sentence was six months. . .
All charges were dropped in 40 percent of the 243 cases. Reasons for those 97 dismissals included insufficient evidence and problems with victims and witnesses.
The remaining 34 cases include defendants still awaiting trial, fugitives and seven defendants tried in U.S. District Court under federal law. Two of the federal suspects were acquitted over an invalid search warrant. The other five received sentences of five to 17 1/2 years.
Out of 243 cases of gun crime in Orlando in 2008 involving assault-weapons, only seven defendants received the minimum penalty required by law. This is not the type of fact you will find in the highly influential Pew Center report urging lawmakers to cut back on incarcerating convicts — because we’re just too harsh on the poor guys. It is not the type of fact you will find in most newspaper articles purporting to examine the criminal justice system.
It is the type of fact you should think about the next time you are staying late at the library and need to figure out how to safely make your way home. And it is definitely what students should think about after they matriculate and leave the dangerous parts of town behind, because there are still children living in those places, without a way out.
What can Georgia Tech students and all the other beleaguered residents of Home Park do to make their streets safer, not just temporarily, or for this semester? They should go to court. They should go watch a day or a few days of processing violent criminals, and tell other people what they saw there. They should take that Orlando Sentinel article and try to replicate that research in their own city — or pressure the newspaper to do so (newspapers being in the business of trying to get readers to read them these days), because catching gun-wielding criminals is only the first part of keeping them off the streets.
We don’t even know how bad it is in the courts. We don’t know what we don’t know, and there is little excuse for not knowing it in a metro area with hundreds of thousands of undergraduates, thousands of professors, three law schools, and millions of residents.