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Fulton County Judges hold the key to reducing jail overcrowding

By Charles Rambo | 7/18/2014, 12:17 p.m.

The League of Women Voters recently hosted a forum at the John Marshall Law School for candidates in run-off elections. With federal consent decree compliance over the Fulton County Jail being a hot issue, I posed a never asked question to candidates for superior court judge, “please state your position about the judiciary’s role in overcrowding at the county jail.”

Since opening, the county jail has been under some form of federal court oversight with a specific focus on daily inmate population. Historically, as many as 3,900 inmates have been crammed into this 2,200 bed facility. Unfortunately, various Fulton Sheriffs in their executive role and county commissioners in their legislative roles continue to wrangle on how to best utilize resources in managing the flow of inmates. Although the jail population levels are much lower; 901 Rice Street, the gated community for the accused continues fluctuating above operational capacity and there remains a persistent demand for keeping communities safe.

And, why should you be concerned? Inmate overcrowding in a county jail is not a constitutional violation within itself; however, overcrowding creates unconstitutional conditions for inmates and staff who are entitled to a safe and humane environment. As a temporary relief, Fulton County has resorted to outsourcing inmates to other jails, at your expense as a taxpayer. Not only do other jail facilities profit from outsourced inmates (who happen to come from our communities), but they use Fulton County as a benchmark of how to avoid becoming involved in a federal consent decree.

Funding for a new jail may not be good political policy; however, other local governing authorities calculate crime with regional population growth. Building or adding jail bed-space just happens to be common sense to avoid costly civil suits filed by litigious inmates. The old mindset of “lock em’ up and hide the key” might be good tough talk, but how much longer can this mindset continue with a proposed 17% increase in property taxes?

With this in mind, why is the role of Sheriff always the fall guy and only recently, the board of commissioners for jail woes? There is another function in our system of checks and balances who too must be held accountable, our elected judges. Why? From the beginning of a criminal case to its conclusion, judges ultimately hold the key to ease overcrowding by keeping justice rolling in their courtrooms.

Elapsed timing other than what is reasonably needed for trial preparation is the real ill of jail overcrowding. The United States Constitution and Georgia’s Constitution are specific about delays of speedy trials. No matter how much the board of commissioners budget or how the Sheriff oversees day-to-day operations, the obligation of the next judge is to set an example by ensuring they enforce timeliness, accuracy and completeness of new and backlogged cases.

The guarantee of a speedy trial is not only a fundamental liberty; it keeps defendants from sitting in jail for an indefinite period, at your expense. When there is a delay in cases, judges must resort to constitutional justice by demanding prosecutors and defense counsel to justify: the length of delay, reason for the delay, the prejudice caused by the delay and the demand to get the trial started. While several initiatives have been introduced to streamline processes, the thorn will remain in the final resolution of jail overcrowding until the county jail is expanded and judges are being committed to their benches.

Both judge candidates were caught off-guard by the initial question, but they did give safe responses in the interest of the accused, the victims and the public. Whoever wins the privilege to meter justice must remember that an overcrowded county jail is a direct reflection of Fulton County’s judicial, executive and legislative branches. But let’s take it a step further; if you are the accused, the best remedy to reduce overcrowding is to do your part by staying outside the gated community of 901 Rice Street.

Charles Rambo is a retired Lieutenant with over 25-years of public policy expertise in the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office. From 2009 - 2014, he led several management and training initiatives leading to key compliances with the federal consent decree order at the Fulton County Jail.