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D.A. promises overhaul of Fulton County justice system after long court delays

District Attorney Paul Howard says he will go to the Georgia General Assembly to propose ways of loosening the log jam at the Fulton County Superior Court.

ATLANTA — It can sometimes take years for a felony case to get indicted in Fulton County. The district attorney is promising to change that by pushing for reforms in the upcoming legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard told The Reveal's Chief Investigator Brendan Keefe this during an 11Alive investigation into a local Fulton County municipality creating local drug charges with questionable penalties, in order to bypass the Fulton County system all together. 

RELATED: No criminal record for heroin and meth possession in Sandy Springs

Fulton County grand juries sometimes don't hand up indictments until shortly before the statute of limitations is about to expire. Once a defendant is formally indicted, the clock for a speedy trial starts ticking, and the Fulton County Superior Court is notoriously backed up.

Suspects are arrested, fingerprinted, photographed, and given bail, but they’re not actually charged until the grand jury indicts them or the prosecutor issues a charging document. A majority of felony cases receive indictments within 90 days, according to the Fulton County District Attorney's Office. Some languish in limbo for a year or longer because of those systemic delays.

A truly-innocent person may have charges hanging over their head for years after an arrest without a day in court, while the guilty are sometimes set free where they could commit more crimes while out on bond.

Keefe found that Sandy Springs was forced to create its own drug court to deal with the delays downtown. Suspects with heroin, cocaine, and meth are sometimes let go on tickets instead of felony drug possession charges. They’re prosecuted on a city ordinance that amounts to less than a speeding ticket.

“They did it because they thought that our system was simply too slow,” Howard said. “I believe that the system is too slow. I believe that our current Fulton County Criminal Justice System is in great need of overhaul.”

In an interview for that investigation, D.A. Paul Howard promised to help solve the problem.

“My office, along with other offices in the county, we’re going to be making a recommendation to the legislature this year to see whether or not we can change that,” the district attorney said.

Chris Hopper, the D.A.'s director of public affairs, added this after we first published the story: "The problem DA Howard is looking to address is the lack of a case processing standard within the Fulton County Criminal Justice System."

"The time it takes to indict the majority of felony cases is not the issue he is concerned with, he is concerned with the lack of a case processing standard. In essence, the absence of a time requirement on the disposition of felony cases in Fulton County. Other jurisdictions with similar populations across the country have case processing standards set by constitutional or administrative orders which require that cases be disposed of in for example, 300 days or 180 days. That is part of what he’s looking at reforming in the 2020 legislative session," Hopper said.

(Note: this story was updated after the district attorney's office pointed out that most cases are indicted within 90 days).

The Reveal is an investigative show exposing inequality, injustice, and ineptitude created by people in power throughout Georgia and across the country.  It airs Sunday nights at 6 on 11Alive.

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