Fulton County Solicitor General Keith Gammage is both measured and methodical as he responds to questions about his first two years in elected office.
Gammage said he understands his words and actions carry significant influence in the lives of those impacted by thousands of misdemeanor cases and county code violations brought before both State and Magistrate Court.
From offenses such as simple battery, cruelty to children and driving under the influence, to more serious ones involving domestic violence, criminal trespass, and animal cruelty, the work is challenging, he admitted.
“With faith and a dedicated team, we are improving Fulton County,” Gammage said. “We are making it safer and giving its citizens what they demand from the system: respect, dignity, and fairness.”
Part of that service delivery model includes taking a holistic approach to administering a swath of criminal justice initiatives that he says are designed to restore victims, offenders and community stakeholders.
“(Gammage) is really heavy into youth and developing them before they start having problems with the law or after, in some cases,” said Fulton County Chief Jailer Colonel Mark Adger.
Adger said Gammage has been equally committed to reducing a backlog of cases that keep people in a state of legal limbo.
Akin to a black hole, this backlog delays case resolutions for both victims seeking justice and non-violent offenders who already face tremendous obstacles to employment, education, and training—a pernicious cycle that contributes to higher rates of recidivism.
On average 67 percent of inmates released for the first time return to jail or prison again, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of those who return again, 34 percent of them come back a third time.
“Whether you are in jail or out, if you are waiting for your case to be resolved and there is no resolution, valuable time is being lost because there are some jobs you can’t apply for or some technical schools and colleges you can’t get into,” Adger said. “He’s made a tremendous difference addressing the backlog and helping clean up criminal records for many young men and women who made poor choices, but are decent people.”
Inspired by esteemed attorney Charles Hamilton Houston—who has been called “the man who killed Jim Crow”—Gammage said he learned how to use his platform as a lawyer to be a social engineer through study of Hamilton’s writings and work as architect of the legal strategy that helped to dismantle segregation in public accommodations.
That enlightenment, combined with the values and life experiences he learned from his hardworking parents who reared him between Southwest Atlanta and East Point, was what Gammage said informed his promotion of several restorative justice initiatives he has launched since taking office.
One of the crown jewels is the University for Parents, an alternative sentencing program that assists low-risk offenders to get back on track.
Participants have leveraged the plan to complete GED training, receive wrap-around parental support services and find work.
“You can’t convince me that people are born and coming into the world to embark on a life of crime. It is my view that there is something missing,” he said. “Whether it be the appropriate amount of love, direction, punishment, values or education. I believe when somebody gets arrested—especially if it’s a non-violent offense – that can serve as an outcry, an opportunity for powers of the system to come together and fix it.”
As he enters his third year in office, Gammage and his staff have helped clear up 2,000 records through expungement and record restriction events across the county, according to data supplied by the Solicitor General’s Office.
“We have also reduced the time it takes to charge public safety cases like DUIs and other minor offenses from more than 20 months to 90 days,” said Gammage, who oversees a yearly office budget of $8.6 million dollars. “The criminal justice system, unlike many other systems, is not like operating with widgets. It’s not cookie-cutter.
“We don’t know fully what might work to alleviate many of the problems,” he said. “We are just trying hard to figure out alternatives.”
Figuring it all out often comes with the fortitude to navigate criticism and ideological debates associated with leading a deeply political office at a time when heightened public interest in criminal justice reforms are creating monumental shifts in the administration of law and order.
Last year, Gammage made a policy change based on budgeting and labor constraints to not provide assistant solicitor staffing at first appearances and other court hearings that his office is not statutorily required to provide.
The decision reversed a traditional prosecuting entity practice and irked some justice activists.
Even though he opted to send victim advocates in place of the assistant solicitors, a couple months after announcing the policy change, the decision disrupted the magistrate courtroom ecology.
Typically, a first appearance hearing notifies arrested persons of the charges being levied against them. A judge considers bail and whether to place any additional conditions of release.
Gammage said that with the exception of cases involving domestic violence, there’s relatively little work an assistant solicitor does in those first appearance hearings because bail fees are automatically set based on the offense.
Around the same time that Gammage made the staffing change, his office also stopped prosecuting code violations throughout the county to focus staff energy on higher priority state court cases.
Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG) and a member of the BlackLivesMatter Atlanta chapter, actively advocates for an end to money bail procedures through the “Black Mamas Bail Out Action.”
Hooks said she expects more from Gammage and others who work within the criminal justice system, particularly other black men and women who have earned influence and a seat at the table.
“Where is the creativity, innovation, and sense of urgency in delivering meaningful reforms?” Hooks said. “Clearing up 2,000 criminal records is a good start. But, honestly, that is low hanging fruit.
“Most of the credit should be given to those 2000 people who demonstrated the gumption and motivation to start and complete the nuanced expungement and record restriction process,” she added.
Hooks said campaigning for office and leading while in office are two completely different skill sets while noting that Gammage outscored his fellow competitors seeking the county’s top prosecuting spot in a BlackLivesMatter Atlanta chapter report card and a survey administered during the last election cycle in 2016.
“I know he is only one person, but I have not seen him publicly go to the mat to address policies and underlying systemic issues that address the over surveillance of Black people or the flawed bail system that keeps people incarcerated,” Hook said.
The Southern University Law Center graduate and former public defender turned prosecutor pushes back against his critics.
“Serving as an elected prosecutor requires faith, courage, innovation and a long-sighted vision,” Gammage said. ”In the course of using limited resources to best serve the public, challenges arise requiring us to distinguish between being the collaborative diplomat and a decisive and firm administrator.
“As a result of our hard-working team at the Solicitor General’s Office, we were able to expeditiously and fairly improve the movement of cases through the criminal justice system while creating new approaches, increasing community and stakeholder collaboration and thereby ensuring better results for the citizens,” he continued.
“Because of positive results, the county commission and county management team have reinvested in the Solicitor General’s Office and are committed to providing resources to best serve the citizens of Fulton County.”