William Claiborne also has asked Los Angeles attorney Barrett
S. Litt to help.
Litt was the lead counsel for a similar group of class actions
brought against Los Angeles County. Those suits resulted in a
$27 million settlement for the inmates in 2001. Two suits brought
by William Claiborne against the Washington jail, the city of
Washington and the U.S. Marshals Service, which exercises
joint custody of arrestees at the courthouse, are pending before
a federal judge.
Pekor said he expects the Fulton County class to include
almost every inmate to pass through the jail in the last two
Anecdotes of late releases prompted the Atlanta-based Southern
Center for Human Rights to begin studying the problem in Fulton.
Mary Sidney Kelly, an investigator and paralegal at the Southern
Center, said she attended two weeks of first appearance hearings
and state court preliminary hearings. She tracked 215 cases where
the defendant was sentenced to time served, the charges were
dismissed or the judge granted a signature bond.
None of the cases tracked by the Southern Center resulted
in the defendants release from custody the same day the
judge signed an order. Of the 215 cases, Kelly found only 24
defendants were released within one day after their court dates.
Some of the others took much longer to be freed: four remained
in jail six days after their release dates, three were held seven
days, one was held 11 days and one was held 12 days.
Stephen B. Bright, director of the Southern Center, said the
problem lies in the jails inability to process inmates
in a reasonable amount of time. The perception of it is
that there are not enough personnel to process people out,
he said. People dont get out until a computer check
The jailers, after people are supposed to be
let go, are then checking for warrants.
Its a total
bureaucratic mess that keeps people in.
A spokeswoman for Fulton Sheriff Jacquelyn H. Barrett said
there would be no statement at this time about the
late releases. She referred questions to Fulton Superior Court
Chief Judge Doris L. Dee Downs. Barrett, who has
been dogged by questions surrounding her decision to invest $7
million in county funds collected from property tax sales, announced
Monday that she will not run for re-election this fall.
A federal grand jury on Tuesday began hearing testimony related
to Barretts handling of the investments. According to reports
in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Barrett took the advice
of a Florida MetLife broker, Byron Rainner, and invested $2 million
of county money in Provident Capital Investments Inc. on March
26, 2003, and $5.2 million in MetLife on April 28 of the same
The money for the Provident investment was proceeds from property
sales conducted by the sheriffs department to settle county
tax claims. The $5.2 million given to MetLife came from another
fund controlled by the sheriff.
Both investments have come under scrutiny by federal prosecutors.
The MetLife money has been returned, but the $2 million given
to Provident has not been given back to the county.
Jails State of Emergency
Barrett declared a state of emergency at the jail
in early March following the accidental releases of three inmates.
Citing jail overcrowding, increased deputy workloads and staffing
cuts, Barrett said the jail had reached a breaking point
and emergency measures were needed.
Soon after that announcement, several attorneys and judges
noticed the increase in the time it took to get a defendant out
of jail following a judges order.
Miranda L. Gatlin, a staff attorney with the state court division
of the Fulton County Conflict Defender Office, said the delayed
release problem became widespread in the last month
She filed five habeas suits at the end of March when she learned
that five of her clients were in jail even though a judge had
sentenced them to time served or the charges had been dropped.
Four of those defendants remained in jail for two days after
the judges order and one stayed locked up for five extra
days. Gatlin said shes had fewer problems since filing
the habeas suits.
Attorneys also are protesting the practice of blanket
strip-searches for arrestees at the jail. Claiborne said case
law suggests the policy of strip-searching every arrestee is
In addition, defendants were strip-searched upon returning
to the jail from court appearances where they were sentenced
to time served, released on signature bonds or had their charges
dismissed. Presumably, the deputies strip-searched the returning
inmates to prevent the introduction of contraband into the jail.
But attorneys say searches of people who have been given their
freedom by a judge are unconstitutional.
Why the Delay in Inmate Releases?
As for the delayed releases, Downs cited several reasons.
The number of people coming through the jail has increased. In
2002, releases averaged about 80 per day, while in 2004 the average
is 112 people per day. In addition, the procedure for checking
out inmates has been tightened because of the accidental
Downs also observed that the flow of information between the
jail and the courts needs to be improved. Currently, information
is sent back and forth from the jail and the courts via e-mail
before being manually entered into each agencys respective
County officials have implemented several measures to alleviate
the problem in the short term. According to Downs, several representatives
from the countys criminal justice system have been meeting
on a weekly basis for the last month or so in a bid to improve
the situation at the jail. The main thing is that were
all working together, and it seems to be effective, she
Deputies have been working overtime to speed up the booking
process and that has helped reduce the number of people waiting
to be released, Downs said.
Another county official looking to improve the jail, Fulton
County Commission Chairwoman Karen C. Handel, said 17 new employees
at the jail soon will complete training in the booking process.
Also, Handel said, the Georgia Department of Corrections has
agreed to move 85 of the 200 state prisoners being housed at
the Fulton County Jail. These are all things we can do
in the immediate short term, Handel said.
To resolve the long-term issues, the county will convene an
independent panel of criminal justice experts to
search for solutions to the jails problems. Handel said
she is helping gather names for the panel and will discuss the
issue at this weeks commission meeting.
The chairwoman, who has publicly called for Barretts
resignation, noted that the commission does not have any authority
over the sheriffs department but nonetheless may be held
liable in legal action against the jail.
Thats whats so incredibly frustrating,
The short-term relief was apparently too late to avoid a class
action. Claiborne already had begun investigating Fulton County
and interviewing released inmates and their lawyers by the time
the changes at the jail were beginning to be implemented.
Same Problems, Different Cities
Similar circumstances led to the litigation in Los Angeles
In 2001, Los Angeles County agreed to pay $27 million to settle
five class action suits brought on behalf of inmates held beyond
their release dates. The settlement covered some 400,000 people
detained in Los Angeles County jails over a five-year period,
about half of whom were strip-searched after their release order.
A 1998 case from the U.S. District Court of the Central District
of California described the process for releases from Los Angeles
County jails and cited two reasons for the delays. Fowler v.
Block, 2 F. Supp. 2d 1268 (1998).
In California, releases were delayed because deputies had
to make sure an inmate was not released if there were outstanding
warrants or the inmate was supposed to appear in another criminal
proceeding. Thus, because there were several information
sources to investigate and the Sheriffs Department was
not endowed with an efficient and very effective computer system,
the plaintiffs criminal check was both time consuming and
laborious, Judge William J. Rea wrote in his 1998 decision.
The warrant checking process was further exacerbated by the
need to enter manually each warrant received by the Los Angeles
County Sheriffs Department.
According to another case related to the five class actions,
the sheriffs department received a large number of warrants
each day and due to the high volume of wants and holds
received each day, the inputting process can, and often does,
take between one to two days to complete. It is only after the
inputting process is complete and the computer check run, that
the LASD begins the administrative steps toward a prisoners
release. Although no longer required to serve time, these prisoners
must remain in jail during the inputting period. Streit
v. County of Los Angeles, 236 F.3d 552.
In other words, the Sheriff and County needed to modify
the appropriate records and files to reflect the plaintiffs
status as a former inmate, Rea wrote.
In cases pending before the U.S. District Court in Washington,
two classes of inmates have been approved. One class includes
inmates who were kept in custody beyond their release dates.
The other includes those who were strip-searched after their
Claiborne, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Fulton
and Washington suits, said the Washington cases stemmed from
a series of administrative glitches and bad practices. Bynum
v. Government of the District of Columbia, No. 02-0956 (D.D.C.
filed May 16, 2002).
Similar to the situation in Fulton, the courts in Washington
used separate computer systems so that when inmates were sentenced,
paperwork had to be entered manually into the jails computer.
Making matters worse, Claiborne said, the paperwork in Washington
did not always come back from the courthouse with the inmate.
Detentions were prolonged further because Washington corrections
officials were checking for warrants and holds after a judge
ordered an inmates release.
In the suit against the U.S. Marshals Service and the
city of Washington, Claiborne contends that the law enforcement
authorities were conducting illegal strip-searches of female
arrestees. Johnson v. District of Columbia, No. 02-2364 (D.D.C.
filed Dec. 2, 2002).
The lengthy booking process at the Fulton County Jail has
caused problems not only for releases but also for intakes. For
a time, the system was so backed up that inmates were being brought
before magistrates for first appearance hearings without being
booked into the jail.
It was so bad that they were bringing people over before
theyd been booked in, said Fulton Magistrate Stephanie
Davis said the jails system appeared to improve in the
last week, but, for the last month or two, inmates were coming
to court without the proper paperwork. Attorneys scrambled to
find the documents needed to hear the cases.
As previously reported in Creative Loafing, the practice frustrated
one magistrate so badly that late last month he dismissed misdemeanor
charges against approximately 20 defendants.
Magistrate Roy C. Roberts said the mass dismissal of charges
turned out to be wrong legally (he should have given the defendants
bonds and ordered them released from custody), but the move caught
the attention of jail officials.
Last week, Roberts was at the jail conducting first appearance
hearings for felony offenders. Attorney Richard C. Wayne came
to the makeshift courtroom with a signature bond signed by Magistrate
Michael B. Wallace at 9:30 the previous night. Through a paperwork
error, the signature bond never made it to the proper authorities
and Waynes client was placed on Thursdays first appearance
calendar by mistake.
Wayne showed Roberts the signature bond and asked the magistrate
to order the deputies to release his client immediately. Roberts
told the Daily Report that he could order such a thing, but the
deputies can tell me to take a hike.
Two hours laterand more than 15 hours after Wallaces
orderWaynes client was released. The jail does
whatever the hell they want to do, Wayne said afterward.
Waynes experience notwithstanding, Roberts said the
jails system for processing inmates and paperwork appeared
to have been working better last week. We are seeing vast
improvements on the felony side, he said.
Indeed, Gatlin at the Conflict Defenders Office said
last week that since she filed the habeas briefs, the majority
of her clients have been able to get out of jail within 24 hours
of a judges order.
Its been an improvement, she said. Its
not 100 percent better but an improvement.