Atlanta’s repeat offenders

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Crime is down overall, but my column today focuses on Atlanta’s big problem with repeat offenders. Police Chief George Turner said recently that the average individual on the city’s list of top repeat offenders has 15 convictions. Mayor Kasim Reed has created a commission to deal with the problem. A local think tank chief says the city is going in the right direction, but should copy the state’s efforts. (The city declined an invitation to write a response.) In our third column, the Atlanta VA writes about its expanding services for veterans.

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Serial criminals on the loose

By Tom Sabulis

Atlanta has a problem with repeat offenders, and judging from a city report on recidivism, it’s abetted by the Fulton County court system.

As one community newspaper put it: “The statistics are jaw-dropping: 481 repeat felony offenders in Atlanta have been arrested more than 7,000 times, and 72 percent of those convicted were given probation or alternative sentencing. That means these criminals didn’t do any jail time or were released on time served. The majority of them are back on the street committing more crimes.”

Only 7 percent of those convicted of a felony received any additional jail or prison time.

“If we could hold those 481 (offenders), this city would be in a great place,” Atlanta Police Chief George Turner recently told the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods. “We might not be Mayberry, but it would make us safe.”

Things are so bad, the city is using crime prediction software to pinpoint where crime might happen next.

Excuse me, Chief Turner, but I can tell you where to start, without looking at your computer: the Wal-Mart parking lot at Howell Mill Road and I-75. Week after week, my neighborhood’s Crimewatch report is littered with the holdups, purse-snatchings and shoplifting there. It would be a joke if it was the least bit funny.

Statistics show the crime rate is down, but the jails are overcrowded and, for whatever other reasons, Fulton judges are turning loose the offenders that Turner talks about.

One page in the city’s PowerPoint presentation on repeat offenders is headlined: “Sentences have been especially lenient on those with prior criminal history.” Another page is topped with: “Challenges with sentencing in Fulton County Superior Court also limit the ability to prosecute known felons in Atlanta.”

Mayor Kasim Reed has created a commission to deal with the problem. Businesses, law enforcement and the judicial system reportedly are banding together to examine the problem this summer.

Feel safer yet?

As reported in the AJC, the mayor has been making the recidivism problem a key component of his public speeches for months. During his inaugural address in January, he called for county partners to convene on the issue. “Crime is at nearly 40-year lows,” he said. “What do you think will happen if those 481 individuals who make up such a large percent of the individuals who cause the most challenges in our environment, actually receive the sentences that they deserve?”

Better yet, what would happen if some of those 481 were prevented from committing crimes in the first place?

Some more statistics, according to the city’s report:

— 7,000-plus total arrests by a pool of 481 perpetrators.

— 75 percent of these perpetrators were already on probation.

— Of the 19 perpetrators who were convicted and given probation through first-offender status, 17 had multiple arrests, with an average of 10 prior arrests.

— One 22-year-old male was arrested for seven felonies from 2008 through 2013. In June 2013, he was arrested and charged with murder “after being released by Fulton County at the end of March.”

— A 20-year-old male had five arrests from 2011 through 2013, including 10 felony counts. His alleged violations included burglary, possession of a firearm, sexual battery and drug possession with intent to distribute. He also had multiple parole violations. He was allowed to keep first-offender status through all five arrest cycles; for his last arrest, he received 90 days’ probation.

Fair or not, the picture painted here is that Atlanta and Fulton County have created a welcome environment for hoodlums. Whether the mayor’s commission will find an answer remains to be seen. In the meantime, city officials shouldn’t wonder why some law-abiding citizens have pushed for easier access to guns to protect themselves.

Work with state, give judges options

By Kelly McCutchen

“Protection to person and property is the paramount duty of government.” This phrase, which appears on the first page of the Georgia Constitution, highlights the importance of the criminal justice system. In keeping with this focus, the Legislature recently enacted sweeping criminal justice reforms designed to reduce crime rates, recidivism and costs. As Atlanta’s leaders seek to address criminal justice, it would be wise to follow the state’s lead.

As of 2010, 1 in every 70 Georgia adults was incarcerated, the fourth-highest percentage in the country. One in every 13 Georgia adults was under criminal justice supervision, the highest rate in the country. Nearly one-third of the adult inmates who were released from prison were back within three years. The recidivism rates among juveniles released from state prisons was even higher, 65 percent.

These appalling statistics led state leaders in 2011 to propose a “smart on crime” approach: Divert non-violent offenders to more effective and less expensive programs while freeing up expensive prison space for more dangerous felons.

In 2012 and 2013, legislators unanimously passed sweeping reforms to the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems. Taxpayer savings are projected to be more than $300 million. Already, positive results are evident: savings of $20 million and a 10-percent drop in the state prison population.

It is still too early to analyze the effect on crime or recidivism rates. But the reforms appear to be working. Several states have passed similar reforms, citing Georgia and Texas as their models.

The city of Atlanta has similar problems: an overflowing jail, high crime rates in some parts of the city, and very high recidivism rates. The crime rate is trending down. But it is still too high.

The Atlanta Police Department appears to be taking appropriate measures: adding patrol officers, and partnering with peers in Los Angeles, New York and London and even the Israel National Police to share training and crime prevention methods. It is also using the same statistical analysis that helped New York City dramatically reduce its crime rate.

Fulton County’s court system is also moving in the right direction, establishing several special courts — “accountability” courts — to focus on the underlying issues driving criminal activity. The Fulton County Drug Court focuses on substance abuse problems; the Behavioral Health Court, on mental health issues, and the Veterans Court, on veterans with conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Diverting individuals arrested for non-violent criminal activity into an accountability court is typically far more effective than incarceration. A bonus: It’s less costly for taxpayers.

Unfortunately, the recidivism rate in Atlanta remains too high. Recognizing this, Mayor Kasim Reed made criminal justice a major focus of his recent re-election campaign. He has followed through with the creation of a Repeat Offenders Commission. The commission, similar to the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform that drove state reforms, comprises members from every area of the criminal justice system.

The commission is likely to find that judges need more information and options in sentencing. Sophisticated risk assessment is now used around the nation to help judges determine which individuals will respond best to diversion programs. Judges also need a graduated array of sanctions at their disposal, including more day-reporting centers, more capacity in existing accountability courts and more community resources.

Finally, Fulton County should work closely with the state as it focuses on education and skills training to prepare individuals to obtain the best anti-recidivism program — a job.

The mayor’s leadership has been crucial: It reinforces Atlanta’s determination to address crime. Georgia is a nationally recognized leader in criminal justice reform thanks to leadership at the state level. Atlanta should follow the state’s playbook and become a leader among major cities in fighting crime.

Kelly McCutchen is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Atlanta VA responds to needs

By Leslie Wiggins

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Atlanta VA Medical Center (VAMC) are fully committed to providing timely, high-quality health care to this nation’s heroes, our veterans.

Recently, the Atlanta VAMC has received negative media coverage regarding access to health care, wait times and alleged mismanagement. The numbers and data do not lie, and the Atlanta VAMC must improve its wait times and access for veterans. We have outlined below some of the aggressive actions taken to correct this issue. However, it is important to keep in mind the scope and reach of our services.

We are the seventh fastest-growing VA Medical Center in the nation. In fiscal year 2013, we provided health care for more than 90,000 veterans through over 1.1 million outpatient visits, nearly 7,800 inpatient admissions and greater than 41,000 emergency room visits. For FY 2014, we are projecting to see nearly 93,000 veterans and provide more than 1.5 million outpatient visits. The Atlanta VAMC has experienced a 72-percent growth rate in the number of visits and an increase of 53 percent in the number of veterans treated from fiscal years 2006 to 2013.

The Atlanta VAMC is one of only four VA hospitals and one of only six hospitals in Georgia to have Magnet Designation, which recognizes the provision of exemplary nursing care.

We are proud to have an active and robust research program and the Center for Visual and Neurocognitive Rehabilitation, a VA rehabilitation research and development center of excellence, one of only 16 such centers in the nation.

We have expanded our sites of care over the last few years, opening a new Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) and Community Living Center in Carrollton and a significantly larger CBOC in Oakwood; expanding our Lawrenceville clinic; and opening on the Fort McPherson campus a new CBOC that will include a women’s center of excellence through a partnership with Morehouse School of Medicine, a domiciliary, and an innovative Community Resource and Recovery Center.

Construction is underway for an expanded clinic in downtown Decatur and at the main campus for primary and mental health care. In addition, we are awaiting congressional approval for a 64,000-square-foot clinic in Cobb County as well as clinics for Pike, Pickens and Newton counties.

We have taken numerous steps to increase access to health care for veterans though Saturday clinics and extended weekday hours for some primary, mental health and specialty care services, increasing the number of appointments available for primary care providers, hiring additional direct patient care staff, and referring dental and ophthalmology patients to community providers if we cannot accommodate their schedule requests.

The Atlanta VAMC is having its service lines contact veterans with appointments scheduled more than 90 days out to see if they would like to be seen sooner. Calls are made daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and we are making three attempts to reach veterans on the phone before mailing them a certified letter.

We are committed to our veterans and to providing them with the health care and services they have earned and deserve.

Leslie Wiggins is director of the Atlanta VA Medical Center.

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