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ATLANTA — Delays in releasing inmates from the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta and the practice of strip-searching arrestees and prisoners who are about to be released have prompted a class action that could leave taxpayers footing the bill for millions of dollars in settlements and legal fees.

A group of attorneys led by William Claiborne III, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who is licensed in Georgia, filed a federal class action, Powell v. Barrett, 1:04CV1100, last week in U.S. district court in Atlanta.

Atlanta attorneys Charles “Chuck” Pekor Jr. and Daniel DeWoskin of Pekor & DeWoskin will serve as local counsel for the suit. Claiborne said his brother, Augusta sole practitioner James Patrick Claiborne, also will work on the case, as will George Washington University Law School professor Lynn Cunningham.

William Claiborne also has asked Los Angeles attorney Barrett Litt to help.

Litt was the lead counsel for a similar group of class actions brought against Los Angeles County. Those suits resulted in a $27 million settlement for the inmates in 2001. Two suits brought by William Claiborne against the Washington, D.C., jail, the city of Washington and the U.S. Marshal’s Service, which exercises joint custody of arrestees at the courthouse, are pending before a federal judge.

Pekor said he expects the Fulton County class to include almost every inmate that passed through the jail in the past two years.

Anecdotes of late releases prompted the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights to begin studying the problem in Fulton. Mary Sidney Kelly, an investigator and paralegal at the Southern Center, said she attended two weeks of first appearance hearings and state court preliminary hearings. She tracked 215 cases where the defendant was sentenced to time served, the charges were dismissed or the judge granted a signature bond.

None of the cases tracked by the Southern Center resulted in the defendant’s release from custody the same day the judge signed an order. Of the 215 cases, Kelly found that only 24 defendants were released within one day after their court dates. Some of the others took much longer to be freed: four remained in jail six days after their release dates, three were held seven days, one was held 11 days and one was held 12 days.

Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center, said the problem lies in the jail’s inability to process inmates in a reasonable amount of time. “The perception of it is that there are not enough personnel to process people out,” he said. “People don’t get out until a computer check is done. … The jailers, after people are supposed to be let go, are then checking for warrants. … It’s a total bureaucratic mess that keeps people in.”

A spokeswoman for Fulton Sheriff Jacquelyn Barrett said there would be “no statement at this time” about the late releases. She referred questions to Fulton Superior Court Chief Judge Doris “Dee” Downs. Barrett, who has been dogged by questions surrounding her decision to invest $7 million in county funds collected from property tax sales, announced on April 19 that she will not run for re-election this fall.

Barrett declared a “state of emergency” at the jail in early March following the accidental releases of three inmates. Citing jail overcrowding, increased deputy workloads and staffing cuts, Barrett said the jail had reached a “breaking point” and emergency measures were needed.

Soon after that announcement, several attorneys and judges noticed the increase in the time it took to get a defendant out of jail following a judge’s order.

Miranda Gatlin, a staff attorney with the state court division of the Fulton County Conflict Defender Office, said the delayed release problem has become “widespread” in the past month or two.

She filed five habeas suits at the end of March when she learned that five of her clients were in jail even though a judge had sentenced them to time served or the charges had been dropped. Four of those defendants remained in jail for two days after the judge’s order and one stayed locked up for five extra days. Gatlin said she’s had fewer problems since filing the habeas suits.

Attorneys also are protesting the practice of “blanket” strip-searches for arrestees at the jail. Claiborne said case law suggests the policy of strip-searching every arrestee is illegal.

In addition, defendants were strip-searched upon returning to the jail from court appearances where they were sentenced to time served, released on signature bonds or had their charges dismissed. Presumably, the deputies strip-searched the returning inmates to prevent the introduction of contraband into the jail. But attorneys say searches of people who have been given their freedom by a judge are unconstitutional.

As for the delayed releases, Downs cited several reasons. The number of people coming through the jail has increased. In 2002, releases averaged about 80 per day, while in 2004 the average is 112 people per day. In addition, the procedure for checking out inmates has been “tightened” because of the accidental releases.

Downs also observed that the flow of information between the jail and the courts needs to be improved. Currently, information is sent back and forth from the jail and the courts via e-mail before being manually entered into each agency’s respective computer systems.

County officials have implemented several measures to alleviate the problem in the short term. According to Downs, several representatives from the county’s criminal justice system have been meeting on a weekly basis for the last month or so in a bid to improve the situation at the jail. “The main thing is that we’re all working together, and it seems to be effective,” she said.

Deputies have been working overtime to speed up the booking process and that has helped reduce the number of people waiting to be released, Downs said.

Same Problems, Different Cities

Similar circumstances led to the litigation in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

In 2001, Los Angeles County agreed to pay $27 million to settle five class actions brought on behalf of inmates held beyond their release dates. The settlement covered some 400,000 people detained in Los Angeles County jails over a five-year period, about half of whom were strip-searched after their release order.

A 1998 case, Fowler v. Block, 2 F.Supp.2d 1268, from U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, described the process for releases from Los Angeles County jails and cited two reasons for the delays.

In California, releases were delayed because deputies had to make sure an inmate was not released if there were outstanding warrants or the inmate was supposed to appear in another criminal proceeding. “Thus, because there were several information sources to investigate and the Sheriff’s Department was not endowed with an efficient and very effective computer system, the plaintiff’s criminal check was both time-consuming and laborious,” U.S. District Judge William Rea wrote in his 1998 decision.

The warrant-checking process was further exacerbated by the need to enter manually each warrant received by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

According to another case related to the five class actions, the sheriff’s department received a large number of warrants each day and “due to the high volume of wants and holds received each day, the inputting process can, and often does, take between one to two days to complete. It is only after the inputting process is complete and the computer check run, that the LASD begins the administrative steps toward a prisoner’s release. Although no longer required to serve time, these prisoners must remain in jail during the inputting period.” Streit v. County of Los Angeles, 236 F.3d 552.

“In other words, the sheriff and county needed to modify the appropriate records and files to reflect the plaintiff’s status as a ‘former’ inmate,” Rea wrote.

In cases pending before the U.S. district court in Washington, two classes of inmates have been approved. One class includes inmates who were kept in custody beyond their release dates. The other includes those who were strip-searched after their release orders.

Claiborne, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Fulton and Washington suits, said the Washington cases stemmed from a series of administrative glitches and bad practices. Bynum v. Government of the District of Columbia, 02-0956.

Similar to the situation in Fulton, the courts in Washington used separate computer systems so that when inmates were sentenced, paperwork had to be entered manually into the jail’s computer. Making matters worse, Claiborne said, the paperwork in Washington did not always come back from the courthouse with the inmate. Detentions were prolonged further because Washington corrections officials were checking for warrants and holds after a judge ordered an inmate’s release.

In the suit against the U.S. Marshal’s Service and the city of Washington, Claiborne contends that the law enforcement authorities were conducting illegal strip-searches of female arrestees. Johnson v. District of Columbia, 02-2364.

Steven H. Pollak is a reporter with Fulton County Daily Report , a Recorder affiliate based in Atlanta.

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