Moderated by Tom Sabulis
AJC reporter Rhonda Cook wrote recently about widespread inefficiency in the over-burdened Atlanta traffic court, where taxpayers are subjected to interminable waits, where eight municipal judges handled more than 165,000 cases last year, and where a citizen advocate found “apparent ineptitude” in a factory-like atmosphere.” Today, Atlanta’s city’s chief operating officer writes about the city’s attempt to remedy the problems. We also hear from one resident, representative of many, who had a miserable experience.
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By Duriya Farooqui
When Mayor Kasim Reed took office in 2010, he made public safety his top priority. The Reed administration immediately began the work of rebuilding and reinvesting in the city’s police, fire, and corrections departments, as well as its judicial agencies. Sworn public safety employees received a 3.5 percent raise and we increased the budgets of the judicial agencies by $1.9 million. The additional sustained funding came through savings from pension reform, improved efficiency and waste reduction, and innovative delivery of city services.
Now three years later, the city has hired 800 police officers and violent crime is at 1969 levels. Major crime has decreased 18 percent over three years and traffic citations have increased by 56 percent. These traffic cases are processed by the Atlanta Municipal Court, which is led by the chief judge and managed by a court administrator selected by the judiciary.
The municipal court plays a vital role in enforcing the work of the departments to uphold our laws and policies and keep our residents and businesses safe. If we cannot hold a person accountable for a traffic, housing or DUI violation effectively, we cannot protect the public good that binds our city and strengthens civil society.
As such, we have supported several court programs that have had a significant positive impact. The pre-trial intervention program was established to enable offenders that have had no other offense within the year to take defensive driving or do community service. It generates approximately $4 million and expedites processing for this non-violent offense at an additional cost. The participation in the program grew by 18 percent in 2012, and has fostered improvement in payment options and customer service.
But we realize there’s more work to be done. That is why my office, under the leadership of Mayor Reed, initiated a review of police department traffic-ticket processing at the courts. The report includes recommendations to expand the number of judges, upgrade technology, track bench warrants, and institute night court. These options are worthy of consideration; even one additional day or night of court could add capacity to process 20 percent more cases (roughly 40,000 citations) and relieve long wait times. Rhonda Cook’s May 18 article in the AJC (‘Atlanta Traffic Court Needs Changes’) highlights some of the findings from this city report that reviewed court the process and found systemic problems, including overcrowding and long wait times.
The city also conducted an assessment of traffic citations and collections, which identified three major areas of opportunity: expanding the pre-trial intervention diversion program, reducing the length of time to adjudication, and stronger collection efforts to capture lost fines and revenues. Of approximately 200,000 citations in 2012, only about one-third of the cases were adjudicated within 30 days and the traffic fine collection rate was estimated to be only about 70 percent. Over 10 percent of cases were dismissed by the court and there is about a 60 percent increase in cases being bound over to the state for defendants requesting a jury trial. As a result, an estimated $4.5 million in fines were uncollected.
We acknowledge that this does not bode well for the strength of traffic enforcement, and the customer service experience that citizens expect to receive from our Municipal Court. The Reed administration believes these issues must be improved, and we have shared these findings with Chief Judge Sloan.
Factual assessments drive operational improvements across all city agencies in Mayor Reed’s administration. I actively seek them in my role as the city’s Chief Operating Officer and act on them to drive improved performance citywide. This has been the case for the turnaround in public safety and the city’s operating departments, and the municipal court should be no exception. I look forward to supporting an effort to build on Mayor Reed’s public safety priorities with our judicial agencies.
Duriya Farooqui is chief operating officer for the city of Atlanta.
By Jonathan Herman
The recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article on the woes of Atlanta traffic court brought back lots of memories, none of them very pleasant. I discovered just how adversarial our legal system can be, how much time and motion gets wasted, and how much gratuitous officiousness an ordinary citizen must endure.
My case was as simple as they come. I was ticketed for driving with an expired tag, even though I had paid the renewal fee on time. But the postal service ate my return paperwork, and the officer inexplicably couldn’t verify that my payment had been processed weeks earlier.
And so I was handed a court date for 8 a.m. on a Monday, despite my pleas to schedule it for a day that didn’t force me to cancel classes at Georgia State University, where I teach.
The actual process was impersonal at best, and dehumanizing or degrading at worst. Before court was convened, a police officer instructed the men to remove their hats, warned everyone that even reading a newspaper would constitute contempt of court and earn a jail sentence, and threatened not to summon the judge until the standees cleared the center aisle. “We were here until 8 one night last week,” he chided us, “That’s OK with me.”
The dozens of cases before mine mostly involved petty violations and inflated fines, but one case in particular exemplified the utter inanity of the system. A woman moving to Atlanta, driving on the highway at night with a huge trailer in tow, had been puttering in the right lane, watching for her exit. A police car was stopped on the shoulder, with its lights on, and the woman passed him without moving to the adjacent lane, thereby violating Georgia’s “Move-Over Law.” She passed him safely, and turned for her exit within a half-minute, but was stopped and issued a citation
Only in an uncivil society would a woman moving from another state, driving slowly and carefully at night, that close to her exit, have to pay a fine for such an honest omission.
But at least she got to have her case heard that day.
You see, I soon learned that I was only there for an arraignment, and that my not-guilty plea meant they’d have to hear the actual case another day, regardless of how much obviously exculpating evidence I carried. I waited to ask the solicitor if they could at least tell me the future court date then, so I could scramble back to GSU for my classes. I was still waiting to ask him when the judge called my name more than three hours later.
And so, I had to wake up before dawn on another morning four months later, to endure another several hours of degradation, only to have the judge dismiss my case without even looking at the evidence I brought.
I didn’t wear a hat either day, and I didn’t open my newspaper, so I wasn’t cited for contempt of court. But I’ll admit that I certainly hold the whole system in contempt.
Jonathan Herman is director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Georgia State University.