Weekend court kicks off at Fulton County Jail in latest push to reduce overcrowding

The Fulton County Jail will begin holding weekend court in an attempt to bring the facility back to pre-pandemic levels in the amount of inmates held. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Alton Adams, chief operating officer of justice, public safety and technology, says no single initiative will bring Fulton County’s jail population down to pre-pandemic levels.

“But we’re hoping and expecting that together if we do seven or eight of these, that we’ll be able to move the needle in the right direction,” Adams said.

Over the past three years, Adams and his staff have led the push to hire more senior judges, establish a competency court and move certain civil cases from superior court to state court in an attempt to tackle the backlog of cases and subsequent all-time high jail population caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Holding weekend court is their latest to make progress.

Sessions are set to start after the Fulton County Board of Commissioners approved the measure on Wednesday, Sept. 20.

Adams said that the county had approximately 2,600 individuals in the Fulton County Jail before the pandemic.

“Today, that number is 3,600,” the COO of justice said.

In part, that’s because Project ORCA – the effort to clear the massive backlog of cases – has largely focused on people who are not in jail.

Meanwhile, about 35% of the jail population has not been indicted. Of those, 60 have been held at the facility awaiting a hearing for more than a year.

At the same time, the overcrowded and beleaguered Fulton County Jail has garnered national attention after ten in-custody deaths have been reported so far this year.

More than half occurred in the span of a month, when former President Donald Trump and his 18 co-defendants were indicted over alleged interference in Georgia’s 2020 election.

Adams said he hopes weekend court will allow more people to finally get their day in court; some legal experts, however, have concerns.

Erin King, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney, said she worries about the extra workload’s potential impact on staff, including judges, court clerks and deputies, particularly in regards to their mental health.

She also raises an issue with court proceedings not being open to the public since they are being held in the Fulton County Jail, which holds two courtrooms.

“More court doesn’t always mean efficient court,” King said.

The attorney said weekend court also does little to help incarcerated individuals with no chance of being able to post bail.

“I just hope that it works the way that they are hoping it does,” King said. “And that we are able to get more clients out of the jail alive and home safely, because those who die in custody no longer have a voice to be found not guilty.”

Samuel Lawrence, 34, is one of the people who died at the Fulton County Jail in August.

According to authorities, he had been charged with second-degree arson. After initially being denied bond, his attorney got a judge to grant him a $30,000 bond in April – 109 days after his arrest.

Records show while Lawrence’s attorney asked for a bond reduction and he had a hearing scheduled for this month, Lawrence was found unresponsive in his cell and later declared dead at Grady Memorial Hospital. He was never indicted.

Weekend court will only pertain to bench trials, or non-jury criminal proceedings.

The intergovernmental agreement between the county and the Georgia Department of Community Supervision allows them to take place on Saturdays and Sundays through the end of the year, with the option to extend the agreement.

Along with weekend court, county officials are considering a proposal to move up to 1,000 inmates to either a former prison in South Georgia or a facility in Mississippi that’s operated by the controversial private, for-profit prison company CoreCivic.

This week, the proposal received harsh criticism from public defenders who say it would deprive their clients of their right to counsel and place an undue burden on families without means to visit their loved ones.

Meantime, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Fulton County Jail after it said credible allegations had emerged “that an incarcerated person died covered in insects and filth, that the Fulton County Jail is structurally unsafe, that prevalent violence has resulted in serious injuries and homicides and that officers are being prosecuted for using excessive force.” 

The investigation is reviewing living conditions, medical and mental health care, use of excessive force, protection from violence and whether Fulton County and the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office discriminate against persons with psychiatric disabilities inside the jail.

In a statement to WABE, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said, “Our investigation is ongoing, so we do not have any comment at this time.”