Georgia Democrats have been demanding Gov. Brian Kemp bring lawmakers back to the state capitol for a special session on gun control, though it’s not likely that any of the anti-gun measures they want to see in place have enough support to become law. But while anti-gunners are intent on criminalizing the right to keep and bear arms and demonizing gun owners, they’re ignoring a huge problem in the criminal justice system; one that desperately needs addressing by legislators on both sides of the aisle.
Fox 5 in Atlanta recently covered what’s going on with a guy named Winston Powell, who’s currently sitting in an isolation cell in Haralson County. In fact, Powell’s been by himself in that cell for an unbelievable 470 days waiting on the state to do a mental health evaluation on him.
“This is wrong,” stressed Haralson County Sheriff Stacy Williams. “These are people.”
If the Haralson County Jail had a frequent flier program, Powell, 28, would already be a lifetime Diamond member, charged 10 times over the last 10 years with a string of nonviolent crimes.
His most recent arrest came in February 2022 when Buchanan police arrested Powell for breaking into a church building. Vandalizing a place of worship is a felony. Because he was already out on bond at the time, he was denied bond for the vandalism.
Powell’s public defender asked for a mental evaluation. And then everything suddenly stopped.
“We’re here to help him, but my hands are tied,” said a frustrated Williams. “It shouldn’t take 10 months to get an evaluation.”
Georgia law requires a defendant to be mentally able to assist in their defense. If that’s in question, the first step is a mental evaluation. On average, about 40% are deemed incompetent.
But right now, 450 pre-trial inmates like Powell are in limbo across Georgia because the average wait to see a state forensic psychologist is 10 1/2 months.
That’s seriously messed up, and I’m sure these lengthy delays are only making things worse for those individuals who are truly suffering from severe mental illness. And as Fox 5 reports, even after an evaluation has taken place, those deemed incompetent to stand trial, as Powell eventually was, are still often confined to solitary while they wait for space to open up at one of the five facilities in the state where inmates can be treated and hopefully restored to competency. Right now it’s taking 200 days on average for those individuals to get a bed.
It has gotten better. Last year personnel shortages meant 140 unused state psychiatric beds at any one time. Today, a spokesperson said the average is around 40.
But that’s still 40 mentally ill prisoners like Powell who wouldn’t have to be in a cell.
“He can’t get along with the other inmates,” complained Sheriff Williams. “He spits on the officers. The state of Georgia needs to do a better job than what we’re doing right here. The system itself needs to change. A jail is not the place for these people.”
This isn’t the only problem plaguing Georgia’s criminal justice system. Like a lot of other states Georgia is also in the midst of a shortage of public defenders, which is adding even more delays in bringing cases to trial (or resolving them via plea bargains). In some states the shortfall is so severe it’s causing judges to dismiss cases altogether.
In Wisconsin, 46-year-old Nhia Lee waited in jail for more than 100 days for the state to find a public defender. He was arrested for drug charges in Marathon County in 2018.
In 2021, Lee’s attorneys appealed to Wisconsin Supreme Court. They asked the court to dismiss his case with prejudice, which would mean prosecutors could not re-indict the case.
“We ask this court today find that the Sixth Amendment is violated when an eligible defendant is not timely provided counsel,” said Bonnie Hoffman during oral arguments on December 10, 2021. Hoffman is director of public defense for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The Supreme Court ruled against Lee, so he could be charged again if released.
Court records show a judge dismissed Lee’s case this past June.
The same day after his case was dismissed, the district attorney’s office re-arrested Lee because the judge’s order allowed prosecutors to file charges against him in the future.
He’s spent more than 1,500 days behind bars at the time of this story’s publication.In Massachusetts, the state’s highest court ruled in 2004 that defendants who wait for counsel more than 45 days are entitled to have their charges dismissed in response to public defender shortages.
Our dysfunctional criminal justice system is in need of serious repair, and no amount of gun control will fix the fundamental problems that have gone unchecked for years, if not decades. The anti-gun proposals put forth by Georgia Democrats are an affront to our constitutionally-protected right to keep and bear arms, but they’re also a distraction from the daily violations of the Sixth Amendment’s right to a speedy trial that are keeping some defendants behind bars for far too long… and are returning others to the streets without ever having to face a judge or jury for their alleged crimes.