COVID has had a huge impact on the criminal justice system. However, judges, lawyers, victims, defendants, and other litigants are working hard to relieve the backlog of cases across the state. There has been improvement every day.
The judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors in Coweta, Carroll, Troup, Heard, Meriwether, Haralson, Polk, Douglas, and Paulding have particularly worked endlessly to attack the backlog. Today, the caseload is smaller than at the height of the virus.
But, these circumstances have caused an issue that affects everyone. Some people who are in jail may be eligible for release while they are awaiting indictment because of the backlog of cases that have grown during the pandemic.
In general, inmates who have been charged with crimes in Georgia are entitled to bond if they are not indicted by a grand jury within 90 days of arrest. There are some exceptions such in death penalty cases.
Although the “90 Day Law” was suspended during the pandemic, it was reinstated over the summer.
That means some defendants accused of crimes are now eligible, or soon will be eligible, for release.
While west Georgia has a backlog, it is nothing compared to metro Atlanta.
CNN recently interviewed Fani Willis; the new District Attorney in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta. I have known Ms. Willis for years. She is a dedicated, courageous public servant and prosecutor.
She said, “We walked into an office with an excess of 11,000 unindicted cases. In addition to that, we already had another 12,000 that were indicted and were working their way through the court system.”
Willis said her office is prioritizing sexual predator and other serious cases. But the reality, she said, is that “there’s gonna be four or five-hundred defendants that we don’t make the clock on and they, without having the proper evaluation by law, a judge will be mandated to give them a bond.”
Willis said her office worked “around the clock” to make sure murder cases were indicted before the September 28 deadline. Of the 224 murder defendants who’ve been charged but not indicted, more than 50 had to be indicted by this week to remain in custody.
Some alleged victims of crime and their loved ones are struggling with closure.
“This is a serious problem,” said Brenda Muhammad, director of Atlanta Victim Assistance Inc. “The people that we represent, the victims of crime, they will find out that the folks who committed the crimes against loved ones or against them, they will be out on the street. Dealing with a gang banger in their neighborhood, yes that is very disturbing.”
Then, there are the men and women, who have not been found guilty of any crime. Regardless of what a person is charged with, they still have a right to be proven guilty without languishing behind bars for months or even years.
The “90 Day Law”” was enacted by the General Assembly to ensure that due process of law (grand jury indictments) would be honored. Without due process, the public would be at the mercy of arbitrary, political, and/or abusive government prosecutions.
There is certainly a balance to be found here. However, expect to see more defendants released because they were not indicted within 90 days of arrest.
In the meantime, I can assure you that the legal community as a whole will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that Americans have the best legal system on Earth.