Officials in Georgia will be required to release accused criminals from jail while they're awaiting indictment because of a backlog of cases that grew during the pandemic, according to the Fulton County District Attorney.
Suspects who've been charged with crimes in Georgia are entitled to bond if they're not indicted within 90 days, and though that law was suspended during the pandemic, it was reinstated over the summer.
That means hundreds of defendants accused of crimes, many of them violent, are now eligible or soon will be eligible for release.
"We walked into an office with an excess of 11,000 unindicted cases," said Fani Willis, the District Attorney of Fulton County, which includes Atlanta. "In addition to that, we already had another 12,000 that were indicted and were working their way through the court system."
Willis said her office is prioritizing sexual predator and other serious cases. But the reality, she said, is that "there's gonna be four or five-hundred defendants that we don't make the clock on and they, without having the proper evaluation by law, a judge will be mandated to give them a bond."
Willis said her office worked "around the clock" to make sure murder cases were indicted before the September 28 deadline. Of the 224 murder defendants who've been charged but not indicted, more than 50 had to be indicted by this week to remain in custody.
"Today I am happy to announce not one individual in Fulton County will be released charged with the crime of homicide because a lawyer or an investigator failed to work up the case and failed to get it indicted timely," Willis said Wednesday at a news conference. "Nor will one get released for a sexual offense, nor will our defendants with the most violent criminal histories."
Willis said the county is running two grand juries for the first time in its history -- the panels seated four times instead of twice a week. She said the office hopes to begin indicting no fewer than 200 cases a week in the coming months.
"That is the only way we can catch up," she said.
Willis told reporters Wednesday that the "crisis is by no means over" but that $5.7 million in county funding this year and next will bring an additional 55 employees to her office, including 15 investigators and 15 attorneys.
Some victims of violent crime and their loved ones say they no longer have closure.
"This is a serious problem," said Brenda Muhammad, director of Atlanta Victim Assistance Inc. "The people that we represent, the victims of crime, they will find out that the folks who committed the crimes against loved ones or against them, they will be out on the street. Dealing with a gang banger in their neighborhood, yes that is very disturbing."
Critics of the District Attorney say that no matter what a person is charged with, they still have a right to be proven guilty without languishing behind bars.
"These people have been in jail for months if not years," said Manny Arora, a criminal defense lawyer. "The DA's office had plenty of time to investigate the cases, because they've arrested these people, Covid or not. Indicting them isn't that big of a deal."
CNN senior law enforcement analyst Charles Ramsey said that clearing the backlog should be a priority. Murders in Fulton County increased by 48 percent since 2020.
"We cannot afford to let violent criminals out," Ramsey said. "People with gun offenses, people with aggravated assault, robbery, things of that nature."
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