Repeat offenders continue to be released from jail on signature bonds, new law seeks to prevent that

ATLANTA, Ga. — A Channel 2 Action News investigation found that many convicted felons who have spent time behind bars for violent crimes are spending little time in jail or prison and in many cases are getting out without posting bail.

In some cases, officers told Channel 2′s Michael Seiden that suspects are literally laughing on their way to jail because they know they’ll be out in a couple of days.

Atlanta police invited Seiden to spend two days with a specialized unit in charge of identifying violent trends and arresting some of the city’s most dangerous criminals.

“Atlanta Police Department! Search warrant,” an officer yelled. Atlanta Police Sgt. RJ Walker and the Atlanta Proactive Enforcement and Interdiction Unit or APEX raided the home of a suspected drug dealer in Southwest Atlanta.

As officers stormed inside, they were laser focused because armed suspects might be lurking around the corner. Police discovered drugs and guns along with a wounded puppy that is clearly the victim of animal abuse.

Police told Seiden that 27-year-old Stephano Reed, known on the street as “Block,” is a convicted felon and drug dealer. “So, you’re telling me you’re not the drug dealer?” asked Seiden. “No,” answered Reed. “Because there’s pounds and pounds of marijuana inside,” said Seiden. “I don’t know. I don’t know nothing about that,” said Reed.

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Police booked Reed into the Fulton County Jail on March 11, 2020, but according to court records, he got out two weeks later.

“You’ve been out with us. You’ve seen how dangerous our work is. These officers do a fantastic job. They put their life you know in harm’s way each and every day. They made a good arrest, kind of a dangerous perpetrator and it’s disheartening to find that person out the next week,” said Lt. Robert Albertini with APEX.

The unit gave us a list of the top 30 convicted felons arrested with firearms in 2019. Some of the most egregious cases involved Michael Hart. The six-time convicted felon arrested 20 different times was caught with a gun last year, but only spent two days behind bars before a judge released him on a signature bond, when a defendant signs a document promising to return to court instead of paying cash.

“What needs to happen? This is just a police officer’s responsibility or who has to be on board?” asked Seiden. “No. Absolutely not. It’s the whole system, criminal justice system from the police to the courts to corrections to probation. We all have to be on the same page. We all have to work together,” replied Lt. Albertini.

Channel 2 attempted to speak with multiple Fulton County judges and prosecutors including District Attorney Paul Howard and newly elected District Attorney Fanni Willis, who defeated Howard in a run-off earlier this year, but they declined to comment.

Instead, Channel 2 got perspective from State Representative-Elect Stan Gunter, who is a former district attorney and superior court judge.

“One of the things that judges have in the back of their mind is how crowded their jails are. As a 90-day period, if they’ve not been accused or indicted in that time period, they’re automatically entitled to a bond,” said Gunter.

Paul Stewart, who works in the bail bond industry, analyzed Fulton County jail data and shared it exclusively with Channel 2. According to his research, since 2017, 25,299 repeat offenders were accused of committing 51,060 crimes resulting in more than $212 million in bonds. But that amount is misleading because signature bonds may have a dollar amount beside them, but they don’t require defendants to put up money.

For the victims of repeat offenders, it’s more than just frustration. The problem resulted in a complete distrust of the justice system.

“It impacts my life every day and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about it,” said Laura King. A group of repeat offenders robbed and assaulted King at the Edgewood Shopping Center in 2014.

“Around noon I went to go lock my car and essentially leaned into a punch and was knocked out and I was beaten and carjacked and they tried to run me over with my car,” said King.

She said fighting for justice has been a struggle. First, she was seated in court next to one of her attackers. Then in the spring she found out about the murder of five-year-old Savannah Adams. Police said one of her attackers, 22-year-old Ethan Gathright, was arrested on murder charges after the little girl was found dead in her bed.

“The entirety of the justice system completely failed me after this and that was almost harder for me to accept than the fact that I had gotten attacked,” said King.

A new Georgia law is set to go into effect on January 1, 2021 that is going to prevent signature bonds for people accused of violent crime such as murder and armed robbery.

It will basically be up to the judge to issue a cash bond or nothing. Opponents of the new law claim it preys on black, brown and poor communities.