Court watch in a nutshell:
- We assist police and prosecutors by documenting and reporting problematic individuals and chronic patterns.
- When the police arrest individuals bringing crime and disorder to our neighborhood, we pull together volunteers from the neighborhood to be present at key court hearings.
- This lets judges and prosecutors understand that we depend on them in our efforts toward a safer and more orderly neighborhood.
General intentions of the MPSA:
We seek to vigorously implement three key strategies in targeting criminals coming into our neighborhood:
- Eliminate the feasibility of criminal activity here
- Broadcast community intolerance for those contributing to criminal & nuisance activity
- Take aim at the sense of impunity with which many of these criminals act
Our patrol helps us to accomplish the first objective – eliminating the feasibility of engaging in criminal activity in our neighborhood and taking that as far as we can. The remaining two strategies are aimed at picking up with where the patrol leaves off in order to establish a reputation of our neighborhood as a no-go area for criminal elements. We wish to make it very clear that law-abiding folks, and not criminals, are entitled to a safe haven in Midtown. We accomplish this objective through various strategies to supplement our patrol efforts, among them the court watch program.
Court Watch: what is it?
The website of the Fulton County District Attorney’s office sums it up best: One of the most successful and recognizable Fulton County Community Prosecution initiatives is the Citizens’ CourtWatch program. Often dubbed the ‘eyes and ears’ of the community in court, CourtWatch was created by District Attorney Howard as a vehicle to engage average citizens in the criminal justice system. As Community Prosecutors track cases involving repeat offenders and those of general interest to the community, CourtWatchers are encouraged to attend court proceedings and, when deemed appropriate by the Court, offer perspective regarding the impact a defendant’s criminal activity has on a community.
The basic objectives of the MPSA’s participation in Fulton County ‘s court watch program:
- To represent the neighborhood’s interest in the criminal justice system and assist local police and prosecutors to more effectively address criminal and nuisance activity adversely affecting the Midtown community
- To enhance awareness among judges and prosecutors of the effects that problematic individuals have on our neighborhood so these issues can be taken into consideration in case prioritization and sentencing.
- To send a message to those engaging in criminal and nuisance activity that criminal activity has no place in our neighborhood, and that the immediately surrounding community will respond accordingly.
How we select cases to pursue:
Over the years we have identified several distinct larger groupings of criminals who, collectively and individually, create an adverse effect upon the surrounding neighborhood. Our cases most commonly come from these groupings:
- (Group I) Ponce & Boulevard drug culture from which many of our burglars and other offenders come,
- (Group II) The street prostitution & drug culture appearing in the Piedmont & 3rd/4th area,
- (Group III) Prowlers roaming through the neighborhood not apparently connected with the first two groupings (a prolific source of burglaries and especially car break-ins), and
- (Group IV) Major criminals, which are usually the robbery suspects who drive in groups, rob people at gunpoint, and then leave the neighborhood again. Particularly brutal and violent criminals are also categorized under group IV.
We keep a watchlist of problematic individuals, who are either chronic offenders or major criminals. Most on the watchlist fall into the chronic category, so we nominate only the worst among those. We routinely monitor jail logs, reports from the police and the community, and conduct observation work on the streets to identify the most problematic individuals. Once an individual is identified, we research the individual and carefully evaluate documentation including communications with victims and witnesses, jail history, court records for previous cases, prison history, and police reports for both current and previous cases. Then we contact our community prosecutor whenever a case of interest arises. In the court watch selection process we seek to balance these four groups in order to more effectively address various distinct patterns of criminal activity in the neighborhood.
Our role in the case itself:
It is important to note that we have no role during the trial phase of a case. We are not witnesses to the case at hand, and our role does not entail testimony in the case itself. While we pursue cases that are likely to result in a conviction based more on the preponderence of evidence standard, a conviction in a criminal case must be reached on its own merits following the standard of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Our role only comes into the picture during the sentencing phase – once a conviction is established. During the trial phase a defendant will sometimes have court dates where they may enter a plea, and the case will then enter the sentencing phase if they plead guilty. In other cases, either a judge or a jury must first convict the defendant before the case enters the sentencing phase. It is only during the sentencing phase where we deliver some form of community impact statement on behalf of the Midtown community that we serve.
How you can help:
We coordinate a pool of court watch volunteers who are willing to attend court hearings, and need as many volunteers as possible on this list who may, at least at times, be able and willing to attend a key court hearing. While a pool of about 20-25 potential participants would be optimal, we normally only need about 4-6 volunteers to actually go to a hearing. One person knowledgeable about the case in question and its defendant(s) will be designated a spokesperson for the group (normally an MPSA board member). Sometimes multiple neighborhood groups are involved with a court watch case, as we often share many of the same criminals with other nearby places.
Hearings very often come up on short notice, and many cases it may even come in the late afternoon for a hearing the very next morning. We then call upon the court watch volunteer list for a handful of attendees for the hearing, and quickly work out carpooling arrangements, provide a detailed briefing on the case, etc. This is very much a hit-or-miss deal – not all volunteers can make every hearing. The larger our pool of volunteers, the more likely we will “hit.” Historically, we typically attended one or two hearings per month and many did not result in a conviction on that day. Sometimes defendants back off of a guilty plea when they learn that court watch attendees are in the gallery, but even with that a clear message still gets out that folks will take a strong stance against those bringing criminal activity to our neighborhood.
Why court watch efforts are so important:
Street criminals often take advantage of the fact that the jails may be overcrowded, the community is not watching, or that certain kinds of cases do not normally receive high priority. These factors give rise to a situation in which too many offenders chronically resume criminal activity in the area where they were arrested. This in turn heightens the sense of impunity with which they continue their engagment in criminal activity. What may appear to a judge or prosecutor to be a routine case could really be part of a larger problem for the community. When judges see that members of the community are concerned enough to appear in court, they need to give not only extra attention to the details of the case itself, but also to critical factors surrounding the case – like community impact. This helps judges and prosecutors to better understand that we depend on them in our efforts toward a safer and more orderly neighborhood.
For several years the court watch program has been a crucial strategy for us towards a safer and more orderly neighborhood, and becomes more effective with time. Several serious criminals, most notably Ricky Love and Kenneth Lamb, have been effectively removed from our streets when they would have otherwise been treated like routine cases without any extra attention by judges and prosecutors. Because of the reputation that our court watch program is developing, some defendants try to quietly negotiate sentences in order to avoid a sentencing hearing with neighborhood court watch volunteers present. One chronic criminal even bolted from the court room when he found out that court watch volunteers were present for his probation revocation hearing. In the long run more criminals will steer clear of our neighborhood once they understand that members of the immediately surrounding community will proactively pursue their cases. Our message to criminals is clear: not here!
- More about this in an AJC article: Courtwatchers keep an eye on justice/nQqb5/