For panhandling, drunkenness, Atlanta plans "petty crime" court

Tom Boland (
Tue, 7 Apr 1998 08:50:20 -0700 (PDT)


By Julie B. Hairston, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The city of Atlanta is devising a plan to get petty offenders, many of whom
are addicts or mentally ill, into treatment rather than the city jail.

Thirty "quality of life'' violations, including prostitution, aggressive
panhandling and public drunkenness, would go to a community court that
would focus on sending offenders to social services agencies or sentencing
them to community service rather than jail.

A group of community leaders and city officials joined Mayor Bill Campbell
Monday to announce formation of a task force to design the community court.
The task force is expected to take a year to come back with a plan and
answer such questions as the cost of starting and operating the court and
its relationship to Municipal Court, which now hears such cases.

A study by Applied Research Services Inc. concluded the new court could
help reduce the number of repeat offenders in the criminal justice system
and on city streets. Central Atlanta Progress Inc. paid for the $30,000

CAP President Charlie Battle called the initiative "an important step in
helping move downtown Atlanta forward."

"While we have consistently maintained that enforcing quality of life
ordinances in the city is very important, it is really important that we
provide for a more restorative form of justice," Battle said.

City officials, business leaders and homeless advocates clashed frequently
in advance of the Olympics as they struggled with ways to deal with
homelessness and street crime.

"We need a different approach," Campbell said Monday. "A community court
will address such quality of life crimes by providing much-needed social
services to violators instead of jail time. Such services would include
substance abuse treatment and essential health care."

The test of the community court will be in the details, said Bill Bolling,
executive director of the Atlanta Food Bank. One important characteristic
will be its ability to supply social services, which are provided through
Fulton County, to offenders under the jurisdiction of a city court.

"The general idea is good," Bolling said. "The key to its success is
providing services. We really do not have a history at the city, county and
state of providing services."

The community court would be modeled after New York's Midtown Community
Court, created in 1993. Atlanta Municipal Court's Chief Judge Barbara
Harris and 10 other local officials visited New York in April 1997 to study
its structure.

The key element there, Harris said, is computer technology that can track

Advocates for an Atlanta community court said savings from reduced
recidivism will help offset some of the costs.

"It's a different way of processing the same number of cases," said Tammy
Meredith, who coordinated the study for Applied Research. "It would be more
of a restructuring of resources."

Next year, the City Council could be asked to approve the funding and the
restructuring necessary to create the community court,


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