Atlanta is designed to be a neighborly city — so neighborly, in fact, with its vast downtown neighborhoods of suburban-style houses with yards, that it is entirely possible to get to know the criminals who cycle through the court system and end up in your driveway over and over again, rifling for change in your car. For years, I watched one such person wander the streets of my neighborhood, and I chased her away from my own car more than once — the worry wasn’t losing pocket change from the console but having to replace a broken window or jammed door lock, which can run to hundreds of dollars.
She acted like a stray dog, and so I came to treat her like one, shouting at her out my window to get off my lawn. Of course I pitied her. She was small, wizened and jerky from dyskinesia, and I knew the streets and her addiction must be hard on her. She dressed to look like a male — less as a statement of sexual identity than as an effort to protect herself from sexual attack, I suspect. Homeless women and women in the criminal “lifestyle” are very vulnerable to rape.
I believe she spent as much time as possible casing my neighborhood, instead of choosing the dangerous housing projects south of us, or the more affluent homes north of us, because there were people around who could be robbed while feeling obliged to protect her from violence: we were the “just right” neighborhood for committing crimes — not too hot, not too cold. On a few occasions, I gave her food while scolding her about coming onto my yard: I am not as heartless as the activists posting here from “Changing Lives Through Literature” seem to believe.
Why didn’t I call the police on her? I did, more than once. But after the first few times, I stopped calling them when I saw this woman up on my neighbors’ lawns or on my lawn, peering into cars and houses. It’s not that the police didn’t respond. But by the time they arrived, the woman would be gone, or trotting down the street hollering that she didn’t do anything, and the police would say they couldn’t do anything without evidence of the crime I had just interrupted. Trespassing was my word against her word: nothing would come of it, they would say. I stopped demanding police reports. Most of the cops were incredibly gracious, but they were spread thin and operating under leadership that prevented them from doing their jobs. What is the point of arresting and processing a tiny little drug addict scrounging for pocket change, when she will simply be given a place to sleep for the night, then released in a day or a few days by a judge who is either exclusively sympathetic to criminals by temperament or forced to act so because there is pressure from above to spend as little as possible on “non-violent” crimes?
For the police, every such arrest meant hours of processing paperwork and many more hours in court. So there was a policy — written or unwritten, I don’t know — to “encourage” callers to agree to do nothing unless or until property damage occurred or a situation escalated to violence. This policy was roundly abetted by Atlanta’s atrocious 911 operators. I rarely met a cop who was anything less than professional, but the 911 operators behaved as if you were interrupting their manicure. Or worse.
Of course, dumbing down the justice system like this is a dangerous game, and, of course, it ended in tears. The day came when I looked out my window and saw the wizened little drug addict using a rock to break my neighbor’s back window. Exasperated, I grabbed my portable phone and ran out my front door to call the police. I hadn’t seen the Corvette parked in my neighbor’s driveway, or the two men sitting in it. By the time I did, I was standing outside with a phone in my hand, yelling at the woman to stop breaking glass. One of the men came out of the car fast, and started running at me. He wasn’t small, and he wasn’t defenseless.
But I was lucky. I had a dog, a pleasant-though-ominous-looking Weimerainer. The Weimerainer hadn’t moved from his bed much in years; he was deep in his dotage and completely blind, but he somehow sensed through several walls that I was in danger and tore out of the house towards the man, who wisely retreated to his car. The dog wandered off to relieve himself, but the men didn’t risk getting out of the car again, and I was even able to make note of their license plate number as they collected the tiny burglar and drove away.
There is a lot more to this story, and I will get to the rest of it another day, but right now I want to stick to that moment in my front yard. I had been lulled, not entirely voluntarily, into dealing with the tiny burglar as a nuisance, not a threat. The police treated her that way (also not entirely voluntarily), and the courts treated her that way, and surely the good people at “Changing Lives Through Literature” would look at her and see nothing more than a victim of bad luck who needed empathy, not incarceration. But, in reality, I didn’t know what the tiny burglar was thinking when she skittered off my front yard or accepted a handout. She could have been thinking about slitting my throat as she took food from my hand. She wasn’t just some tragic, dyskinesiatic moppet: she was also a career criminal who got up every morning and began trying (albeit very badly) to commit crimes, and she probably attempted or committed thousands of crimes over the decade-and-a half I saw her walking the streets.
Then finally, one day, she brought dangerous men to my neighbor’s house, and if they had been armed, I could have been murdered in my own front yard, phone in hand, bleeding to death as a bored 911 operator put me on hold to examine a chip in one of her acrylic nails.
Below is the Georgia Code on recidivists and sentencing. I would be grateful to hear from a legal practitioner who can paraphrase it, for, as I read it, the code grants judges enormous latitude in sentencing second offenders — essentially permitting them to do as they please. Even after three prior felonies, it only suspends the possibility of parole for the fourth felony while still allowing the judge to define that sentence. There may be other sentencing guidelines that enter here. The recidivism law does require life without parole for conviction for a second “serious violent felony” (this means murder or felony murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, and aggravated sexual battery). But what about repeat offenders like the tiny burglar? How often has she been arrested, processed, then released back on the streets by a judge who decided that her crime wasn’t worth the court’s time? And at what point does a judge’s decision to table a prosecution conflict with enforcement of the recidivism law?
These are the types of questions that never seem to be addressed, even in the aftermath of an horrific, preventable crime like the murder of Eugenia Calle. In that case, it appears that one Fulton County judge failed to so much as check Shamal Thompson’s record in other jurisdictions before wrongfully granting him a first offender status for which he did not qualify. There is still no public word on possible censure for Judge Cynthia Becker. Why on earth not? Doesn’t the public deserve some answers? Is it common to fail to check for prior convictions in other jurisdictions before sentencing offenders? Does this happen every day? Is the judiciary simply hoping that this question will go away?
Are judges not abiding by the law?
And what about Johnny Dennard, who had at least five burglary convictions when he was convicted for burglary a sixth time and was released to an “outpatient treatment center” rather than being sent to serve the (apparently mandatory) minimum five years for the crime? Is the prosecutor appealing the sentence? If not, why not?
UPDATE FROM PAUL KERSEY, ATL:
“I want to let you know about the latest news I heard concerning the Shamal Thompson case. Last week a local TV station aired a story that included an interview with the DeKalb District Attorney Gwen Keyes Fleming. When asked why Thompson was allowed to receive first-offender status for his burglary charge in 2006, Fleming said it was because his conviction in Gwinnett County had not been properly entered into the computer system used to keep track of such things. Of course that still doesn’t let DeKalb off the hook, as I imagine there are other ways to check for such information. And it certainly does not let Judge Becker off the hook. Gwinnett confirmed the person who was supposed to enter Thompson’s conviction was aware there was a problem when they attempted to enter the information, but apparently it was never corrected.”
Georgia Code § 17-10-7. Punishment of repeat offenders; punishment and eligibility for parole of persons convicted of fourth felony offense
(a) Except as otherwise provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, any person convicted of a felony offense in this state or having been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of a crime which if committed within this state would be a felony and sentenced to confinement in a penal institution, who shall afterwards commit a felony punishable by confinement in a penal institution, shall be sentenced to undergo the longest period of time prescribed for the punishment of the subsequent offense of which he or she stands convicted, provided that, unless otherwise provided by law, the trial judge may, in his or her discretion, probate or suspend the maximum sentence prescribed for the offense. (b)(1) As used in this subsection, the term “serious violent felony” means a serious violent felony as defined in subsection (a) of Code Section 17-10-6.1.
(2) Any person who has been convicted of a serious violent felony in this state or who has been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of a crime which if committed in this state would be a serious violent felony and who after such first conviction subsequently commits and is convicted of a serious violent felony for which such person is not sentenced to death shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life without parole. Any such sentence of life without parole shall not be suspended, stayed, probated, deferred, or withheld, and any such person sentenced pursuant to this paragraph shall not be eligible for any form of pardon, parole, or early release administered by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles or for any earned time, early release, work release, leave, or any other sentence-reducing measures under programs administered by the Department of Corrections, the effect of which would be to reduce the sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole, except as may be authorized by any existing or future provisions of the Constitution.
(c) Except as otherwise provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, any person who, after having been convicted under the laws of this state for three felonies or having been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of three crimes which if committed within this state would be felonies, commits a felony within this state other than a capital felony must, upon conviction for such fourth offense or for subsequent offenses, serve the maximum time provided in the sentence of the judge based upon such conviction and shall not be eligible for parole until the maximum sentence has been served.
(d) For the purpose of this Code section, conviction of two or more crimes charged on separate counts of one indictment or accusation, or in two or more indictments or accusations consolidated for trial, shall be deemed to be only one conviction.