Pandemic-driven court backlog blamed for Georgia crime wave

Pete Skandalakis (Photo credit: Newnan Times Herald)

ATLANTA – The partial shutdown of the court system in Georgia during the coronavirus pandemic is contributing to the crime wave plaguing Atlanta and other cities, a representative of the state’s prosecutors said Tuesday.

“We have to get our courts operating again,” Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, told members of a legislative committee. “If we get COVID under control, jails will be able to hold people longer.”

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston asked the House Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee last spring to hold hearings this summer to examine what’s behind a rise in violent crime across the state – particularly in and around Atlanta – and look for solutions.

A crime wave that began during the early months of the pandemic last year in Atlanta and other large U.S. cities has picked up momentum this year. Gov. Brian Kemp responded in April by forming a multi-agency Crime Suppression Unit to work with local police departments to address the worrisome trend.

Col. Chris Wright, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, told the committee Tuesday the unit is making progress.

Since April, members of the unit have made 10,953 traffic stops resulting in 7,618 citations, he said. They have made 285 arrests for driving under the influence and 207 for reckless driving while arresting 188 people on warrants, including 11 murder suspects, he said.

Wright said the agency’s board voted last week to make the Crime Suppression Unit permanent and assign 10 state troopers to full-time duty with the unit in metro Atlanta.

But Skandalakis said there’s a limit to what law enforcement can do to fight violent crime when a lack of indictments and jury trials has created a backlog of pending criminal cases. The backlog is causing jails to become overcrowded with suspects awaiting trial, which forces authorities to release repeat offenders charged with violent crimes on bond, he said.

“We can’t arrest our way out of the problems occurring today,” he said. “With the pandemic, we’ve had a perfect storm of repeat offenders with access to firearms.”

Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said the delay in prosecuting cases is promoting a lack of accountability in the criminal justice system.

“It’s creating a general level of disrespect,” he said. “Many people think there’s no consequences for their actions.”

But there have been some successes. Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant testified Tuesday that the level of gun violence in the city went down after his department, working with the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, launched Operation Phoenix targeting the most violent offenders.

Another initiative aimed at crime around nightclubs also has paid off, Bryant said.

“We have begun to see the level of violence, especially downtown and in Buckhead, take a hit,” he said.

Several witnesses who appeared before the committee Tuesday said more state funding to hire more prosecutors and law enforcement officers would help.

Kemp recently committed up to $7 million from the Governor’s Emergency Fund to help finance the Crime Suppression Unit.

Ralston has proposed putting $75 million toward boosting law enforcement and mental health services in Georgia.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the state Senate, is calling for a $250 million tax credit to raise funds for crimefighting.

Georgia joins 20-state lawsuit aimed at transgender rights

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr

ATLANTA – Georgia has joined 19 other Republican-led states in suing the Biden administration over directives allowing transgender workers and students to use bathrooms and locker rooms and join sports teams matching their gender identity.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Tennessee, accuses the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and U.S. Department of Education of issuing guidance in June that improperly expanded the scope of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year.

“The administration is willfully circumventing the authority of Congress and ignoring the rule of law with this regulatory overreach,” Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said Tuesday. “There is an established process to change antidiscrimination law, and federal agencies lack the authority to change the law in this way.”

The Supreme Court decision prohibited employers from firing workers because of their gender identity or sexuality. The ruling had nothing to do with whether employers or schools could maintain sex-separated bathrooms and locker rooms or whether students born male could compete on girls’ sports teams, the plaintiffs claimed.

Several bills prohibiting “biological boys” from playing in school sports against “biological girls” in Georgia didn’t make it through the General Assembly this year amid criticism they discriminated against transgender students. However, the legislation remains alive for consideration during the 2022 session.

The states’ federal lawsuit asks the court to declare the agencies’ guidance invalid and to prohibit its enforcement.

The states participating in the case with Georgia are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Kemp sending more Georgia National Guard troops to COVID-19 fight

Georgia Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey talks about coronavirus testing at a news conference on March 5, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp committed up to 2,500 Georgia National Guard troops Monday to fighting the surge of COVID-19 cases across the state.

While the 105 Guard members Kemp deployed to 10 hard-hit hospitals last week were medically trained, the newly assigned troops will be given non-medical assignments, the governor said. He said hospital executives have told him they need help with such tasks as directing traffic, staffing cafeterias and cleaning rooms.

“It’s a real morale booster to let the people working in the hospitals know we’re listening to them,” Kemp said.

The additional commitment came as COVID-19 cases continued to explode in Georgia. The 12,223 new cases reported on Saturday was among the highest since the coronavirus pandemic first hit Georgia in March of last year, state Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Kathleen Toomey said.

Toomey said many of the newer cases involve school-age children, particularly those ages 11 to 17.

“Children are getting infected and transmitting to other family members,” she said.

Toomey said the three vaccines that have proven effective against COVID-19 continue to work well against the virus, including the highly contagious delta variant.

While 168 vaccinated Georgians have died from the disease, that represents a tiny percentage of the total deaths from COVID-19, she said.

“We have the capacity to vaccinate more and more people,” she said. “We’re just not getting people coming to be vaccinated.”

Mass vaccination sites have worked well to increase the number of vaccinated Georgians.

But Toomey said some health-care workers giving shots have been harassed by people opposed to vaccinations. One site even had to close due to threats, she said.

“This is wrong. These people are giving their lives to help others,” she said. “We should be thanking these individuals.”

Kemp said vaccination incentives have paid off. He cited DeKalb County, where 2,500 people were vaccinated during a single event.

The governor also announced on Monday that the Georgia Department of Community Health will offer $150 Visa gift cards or $480 in credit for health-care expenses to State Health Benefit Plan members as a vaccination incentive.

He reminded state employees state agency offices will be closed this Friday to give them a chance to get a vaccination.

Meanwhile, Kemp continued to emphasize vaccines as a better weapon for fighting COVID-19 than government-imposed mask mandates.

“Mandates are only going to cause division,” he said. “We shouldn’t be fighting about these issues.”

Besides the additional National Guard commitment, an executive order Kemp signed Monday also lifted the usual limits on weight, height, length and operating hour of commercial trucks to speed medical supplies to Georgia hospitals. He said hospitals are reporting oxygen in short supply.

Rights groups push for redistricting maps reflecting growth of minorities

ATLANTA – The new congressional and legislative district maps the General Assembly will draw this fall should reflect the tremendous growth of minority groups in Georgia, representatives of civil rights and voting rights groups said Monday.

The state’s Black, Hispanic and Asian-American populations increased by double digits during the last decade, while Georgia’s white population declined by 1%, Christopher Bruce, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, told members of the state House and Senate committees overseeing redistricting.

The federal Voting Rights Act prohibits redrawing maps in a way that dilutes minority voting power, added Sean Young, the ACLU of Georgia’s legal director.

“When you’re looking at a map, are you making it harder for communities of color to elect a candidate of their choice?” Young said. “The Voting Rights Act trumps everything other than the U.S. Constitution.”

States must redraw their congressional and legislative district lines every 10 years to account for population shifts reflected in the U.S. Census.

The Census Bureau released local data from the 2020 Census earlier this month. The Republican-controlled General Assembly will use that data to redraw Georgia’s district boundaries during a special session this fall.

Voting rights advocates and civil rights groups representing Black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters urged lawmakers Monday to engage in a transparent redistricting process that will lead to fair maps. That was essentially the message the two committees already heard during 11 public hearings held across the state in recent weeks.

To ensure transparency, the committees should allow additional hearings after proposed maps have been drawn, let the public submit alternative maps, and provide relevant materials in a language other than English, said Lavita Tuff, policy director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, which represents by far Georgia’s fastest growing minority group.

“Georgians want a fair redistricting process that results in maps that respond to the needs of citizens … [and] that do not confer partisan advantage,” said Julie Bolen, redistricting chair for the League of Women Voters of Georgia. “Secrecy intensifies public mistrust of public elected officials at a time it’s already at a low.”

Sachin Varghese, general counsel for the Democratic Party of Georgia, said that’s not what happened in 2011 when Republicans were in charge of redistricting. He said GOP lawmakers moved Black voters out of Georgia’s 12th Congressional District to make it easier to elect a white candidate and paired Black legislative incumbents with other incumbents, creating more uncompetitive districts elsewhere.

But Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said Georgia’s 2011 redistricting maps were approved by then-President Barack Obama’s Justice Department and were never challenged in court. The same was not the case in 2001, when Democrats held majorities in the legislature, Cowsert said.

“The last time the Democrats drew these districts in Georgia, they were extremely gerrymandered,” he said. “The Republican Party has handled redistricting one time in the last 100 years, and the maps were found to be fair, legal and constitutional.”

Varghese responded that he disagreed with the Obama administration’s decision on the 2011 maps, and they should have been challenged.

Janet Grant, vice chairman of the nonpartisan nonprofit Fair Districts Georgia, conceded the legislature faces a difficult job balancing the need to maximize minority voters’ opportunities to elect candidates of their choice with keeping cities, counties and other “communities of interest” together.

“We recognize you have a very big job in front of you with a lot of competing interests,” she told lawmakers. “[But] Georgia is one of the least competitive states in the country. There is a lot of room for improvement.”

Herschel Walker brings strong pros, cons to U.S. Senate race

Herschel Walker

ATLANTA – Herschel Walker’s Heisman Trophy-winning football exploits at the University of Georgia should be enough to win him the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate next spring on name recognition alone.

But political observers say his lack of political experience, personal baggage and close ties to former President Donald Trump render his hopes of defeating incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in the 2022 general election more problematic.

Walker toted the football for UGA at a high point for the Bulldogs program, leading the way to a national championship in 1980 and capturing the Heisman as college football’s player of the year in 1982.

“Those who remember his success at UGA will give him a leg up in name recognition,” said Charles Bullock, a longtime political science professor at the university in Athens.

The other three candidates who preceded Walker’s entrance into the Republican Senate race last Wednesday don’t come close to matching his name ID.

Neither Latham Saddler, an Atlanta banking executive and former Navy SEAL officer, nor Kelvin King, a small business owner and Air Force veteran from Atlanta, has ever run for public office.

Although Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black has been elected statewide three times, the ag post is well down the ballot and doesn’t tend to produce household names.

Saddler and King responded to Walker’s candidacy by questioning the relevance of his football experience decades ago to the challenges facing Congress today.

“This campaign isn’t about the glories of yesterday,” Saddler said. “Georgians want a next-generation conservative leader who can beat Raphael Warnock.”

“He was a legend on the football field,” King conceded. “But this is not football.”

Black aired a TV ad several weeks ago when Walker’s candidacy was rumored but not official pointing out the native of rural Wrightsville, Ga., has lived in Texas for decades, while Black has lived in Georgia all his life.

Walker has responded since then by registering to vote in Georgia, using an Atlanta address.

There are examples of football celebrity leading to the halls of Congress. Former University of Oklahoma quarterback J. C. Watts and Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent both served in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 1990s and early 2000s representing Oklahoma.

Former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville was elected last year to represent Alabama in the Senate.

Unlike Walker, who earned his football accolades nearly 40 years ago, Tuberville’s football stardom is of much more recent vintage.

But Bullock said the decades that have passed since the Walker era at UGA likely won’t hurt his chances for the Republican Senate nomination because of the makeup of the GOP electorate in Georgia.

“The voters in the Republican primary are going to be white, older voters,” Bullock said. “They’re more likely to remember his glory days.”

Bullock said another advantage Walker will enjoy with GOP voters is his close ties with Trump. Their friendship goes back to 1984, when Trump was part owner of the New Jersey Generals of the upstart United States Football League, where Walker began his pro career.

Trump publicly touted Walker’s potential as a Senate candidate for weeks before he decided to entry the fray, and Georgia’s Republican Party remains full of Trump loyalists convinced last year’s presidential election was rigged, despite numerous court rulings to the contrary.

“A component of the [primary] electorate will say, ‘He’s Trump’s man. That’s all we need to know,’ ” Bullock said.

But to the extent Trump helps Walker in the Republican primary, his close ties to the former president likely will hurt him in the general election, Bullock said. That has Georgia Republicans who want the party to move away from Trump worried.

“I do not know a single credible Republican strategist in Georgia or Washington who thinks [Walker] can be beaten in the primary,” wrote Erick Erickson, an Atlanta-based conservative radio host. “I do not know a single credible Republican strategist who thinks he can win the general.”

Republicans also are wary of the negative press coverage that has already emerged of Walker’s struggles with mental illness and court records claiming violent behavior.

“If any Republican in Georgia told you they didn’t have concerns about his candidacy, they’d be lying to you. We all have concerns,” Chip Lake, a Georgia-based GOP strategist told Roll Call, a Washington, D.C., newspaper and website that covers Congress.

Still, Walker’s formidable image as a candidate has chased some candidates out of the Senate race. U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Savannah, had been thinking about running but has now endorsed Walker.

Former Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who lost to Warnock last January in a runoff, has said she will wait and see how Walker is faring in the contest before deciding whether to become a candidate.

But the current candidates are staying put, at least for now, and urging Walker to get out on the campaign trail and debate the issues with them.

“We need to have this discussion,” Black said in a video his campaign released shortly after Walker declared his candidacy. “It’s about the future of our country.”