Eppinger’s felony case was back in the news last week after Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis criticized the decision to grant bail in the case. Without specifically criticizing the trial court judge in the case, Willis said the process was indicative of problems determining which defendants are being held without bond.
In Eppinger’s case, the judge said she was initially unaware of his full criminal history, his alleged ongoing attempts to engage in gang activity from inside prison, or his revocation of bail for previous offences.
Once a fuller picture of Eppinger’s background became known, including his probation violation stemming from a series of violent crimes in 2016, the magistrate increased his bail to $2 million, against the initial $400,000 that had been fixed.
As the case unfolded, the criminal justice system seemed almost as confused as a public frightened by what was happening.
And that is simply unacceptable.
A Fulton County assistant district attorney apologized to the trial judge because “the most complete set of information” was not initially available to help fully inform the bail decision.
The Eppinger case is just one example of a problem that needs to be solved.
Civil order in society requires trust in public safety and the criminal justice system that our taxes pay for.
The relentless onslaught of high violent crime rates in recent years — along with reports of faulty disclosure of critical information about an accused’s story — has severely damaged public confidence in the system.
Clearly, quick and thorough solutions are needed, and this must be a priority for public officials and legislators.
Accurate, up-to-date information is critical to effectively fighting crime, even if the reports generated don’t have the visual impact of flashing blue lights or officers threading crime scene tape.
It shouldn’t be beyond the reach of the high-tech wizardry that is ubiquitous in our lives and workplaces to establish and maintain electronic systems that provide the police, courts and correctional system with State the right data they need to do their job.
And their top priority is to ensure the safety of Georgians.
There are some promising steps, given that the Georgia General Assembly this month passed Senate Bill 441, which calls for improvements in the state’s criminal justice database.
At the time of its passage, Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan said, “When judicial leaders do not have a complete picture of an individual’s criminal history, the safety of our communities is compromised.
The new law calls for the formation of a “Criminal Case Data Exchange Committee” that would create and oversee “a statewide electronic reporting process for criminal justice agencies, clerks, probation and parole monitoring offices,” according to a statement from Duncan’s office.
The push for the law came after investigative reports from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found problems with the status quo here. A January report began by noting that “Georgia’s criminal history database is filled with information gaps that make records unreliable for state judges, employers, and probation officers. “.
In Fulton County alone, our reports revealed that the Criminal Records System had no final results reported for more than 1.5 million charges, or approximately 40% of Fulton charges in the database. State. About 19,000 charges with missing information were for serious violent crimes.
Statewide, for nearly 7 million entries in the criminal records database, no disposition has been recorded. That’s more than 1 in 4 charges statewide. And in 17 Georgia counties, fewer than 60% of charges have been disposed of, according to Georgia Bureau of Investigation bulletins for each county.
As you can see, this problem is not new. A 2019 report from the Atlanta Commission on Repeat Offenders noted “incomplete and inaccurate knowledge of agencies throughout the process,” from arrest to trial.
Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Christopher S. Brasher testified before a state legislative committee last October that “we need better information to be able to make better decisions.” Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Georgia Board of Attorneys, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a January article that “this is an issue that needs to be addressed.”
SB 441, which awaits Governor Brian Kemp’s signature, offers at least a start toward addressing this issue of public safety and, by implication, public trust.
Even with some pending fixes, it’s important to note that it’s not just data issues that need fixing.
An understandable fear of violent crime now strongly guides the expectations and actions of the public, politicians and various civic actors.
Beginning to resolve this crisis will require not only improvements in information systems and interagency collaboration, but also an unwavering commitment to public safety and the common good – instead of pointing fingers for political gain.
While we wait, these problems – and the violence we experience – continue.
It has to stop. After all, each of us deserves to feel safe.
The Editorial Board.