When it comes to crime in Bartow County, Cherokee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Rosemary Greene said one common factor shows up time and time again.
“I tell grand jurors when I meet with them that probably somewhere around 85% of all crime in Bartow County — and really, across the United States — is involved in a drug case,” she said. “And by that, I don’t mean it is a drug case, but most of our thefts, our sexual offenses, domestic violence, they all have drug undertones to that.”
Greene, who serves as the lead prosecutor for Bartow and Gordon counties, was the guest speaker at Tuesday evening’s Bartow Diversity: Open Forum meeting at the Cartersville Civic Center.
While she said methamphetamine is still the biggest drug problem prosecutors are seeing in the local courts, Greene noted that how the drug is being manufactured — and by whom — has changed over the last two decades.
“In Bartow County now, we don’t have a lot of individuals who are making methamphetamine,” she said. “When I started as a prosecutor back in the early 2000s and then through there, we saw meth labs all the time.”
Rolling meth labs and “shake and bake” hotel operations are almost unheard of now. Rather, Greene said the bulk of the community's supply is being imported from south of the border.
“You’re not seeing it produced locally,” she said. “We are having an influx of that coming in now from Mexico — that’s what’s made it so cheap.”
Indeed, Greene said “product” that once cost $1,000 now has a street value of just $350.
Another concern, she said, is the uptick in prescription drug and heroin use in the local community.
“How many overdoses we’re having here in Bartow County every week, it’s just staggering,” she said. “Heroin is cheaper, it’s a bigger high, so we’re seeing a lot more of those issues in our community here, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
Under House Bill 1176, which was signed into law by former Governor Nathan Deal in 2012, a plethora of new criminal justice standards were established statewide. Among other changes, the bill set new guidelines for sentencing drug offenders, with an emphasis on weight-based prosecution.
For example, anyone who is convicted of or pleads guilty to trafficking receives a mandatory minimum 10-year prison sentence and a $200,000 fine — if the amount exceeds 400 grams, the mandatory sentence is 25 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
“Those are not things we have the ability to negotiate with,” Greene said. “Those are things that shall be served, shall be done. Part of Gov. Deal’s criminal justice reform did allow some deviations from that ... [but] a lot of times, our guidelines are set by law, we don’t just randomly say ‘we’re going to sentence you to 10 years.’”
Making things even tougher for her office, she said, is a massive backlog at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation State Crime Lab in Decatur.
“When the recession hit, that was one of the areas that took a big knock for us in prosecution and law enforcement,” she said. “We used to have a regional lab in Summerville, so we sent everything up there, we had quick access and results and we don’t now — it can take anywhere between six to 12 months to be able to get those results back.”
It’s not just impacting local drug cases, Greene added — it’s also affecting autopsies and other forms of forensic testing needed to move forward on rape and homicide cases.
“On a DNA case, it can take 12-24 months,” she said. “If it involves a child you can request that to be expedited, and when we’re saying expedited, I mean maybe that might be in 12 months … they just don’t have the personnel down there to test it.”
Funding for the local district attorney’s office, Greene said, can also present some challenges. While the Cobb County office has about 50 attorneys — handling only felonies, with some specialized units handling caseloads as low as 35 — Greene said each of her 11 assistant district attorneys are juggling close to 400 cases at a time.
“We are stretched thin with the population increasing,” she said.
Yet even with adequate funding in place, Greene said in the past it has occasionally proved difficult to recruit and retain prosecutors.
“We’re not a metro county. We prefer our prosecutors to live here if they can, and we just don’t always have those resources,” she said. “You prefer people with local ties, and I learned that the hard way, because I’ve hired people who live in Atlanta or live somewhere up and they don’t want to stay.”
And it’s no secret, Greene said, that prosecutors and the State Board of Pardons and Paroles don’t always see eye-to-eye. Things become especially problematic, she said, when the board releases individuals from prison — and without informing the local district attorney’s office.
“The parole board is its own separate animal, its own separate entity in State government, it is one of the only things left in the State of Georgia that is done behind closed doors,” she said. “There's a lot of change in that area where they’re trying to be more aware of that, because we have a duty to let you know somebody’s getting out of jail and sometimes we’re not notified.”
CHANGING PERSPECTIVES AND FUNDING ISSUES
Greene said that Georgia's criminal justice system has certainly “come a long way” when it comes to dealing with individuals with substance abuse issues. Instead of simply locking up people because they use drugs, incarceration alternative programs like accountability courts are giving offenders of the like a second chance at sobriety.
“That is the basis of drug court,” she said, “that you are fixing the addiction end of it so that they’re not going to reoffend.”
Greene said there definitely seems to be some relaxing attitudes towards marijuana in the criminal justice system. Defendants who are found guilty of selling small amounts of marijuana today, she said, may wind up with a sentence of five years on probation and six months to serve in the county jail. Ten years ago, she said that same offense likely would’ve resulted in prison time.
There is an obvious mental health undercurrent to many of the cases she prosecutes, Greene said. But in the wake of the Great Recession, many local and regional resources — such as the Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital that shuttered its doors in Rome almost a decade ago — are no longer available or simply cannot meet community demand.
“I know ya’ll see it in the school system, mental health, we see it in law enforcement and the court system, too,” she said. “It is lacking … we’re better than some counties, Bartow has more resources than Gordon has, but it’s a huge problem.”
But the State of Georgia and its Department of Corrections, she said, are getting more resources, including integrated treatment programs for inmates with mental health diagnoses.
“They get different treatment than someone does that just goes into the State system for committing a crime. We also have programs with that that involve drug use, and they say that that’s very intense,” she said. “But the mental health probation officer who sees these people, you have to have an Axis-diagnosed mental health illness, which a lot of people don’t have but are still somewhere on that spectrum.”
Individuals with mental health disorders, she said, are a difficult population to supervise — especially considering the lack of general treatment options in the local community.
“A lot of times, law enforcement gets calls, and what do you do? They haven’t committed a crime, where are we going to take them?” she said. “They don’t want to voluntarily commit themselves, and if you can take them to the hospital for an evaluation, you can only hold them for a little while.”
While mental health-centered accountability courts remain a possibility in Bartow and Gordon, Greene said there may not be enough financial resources available to create — or maintain — such a program.
“With the new governor in place, everything’s kind of in flux,” she said.”No one really knows what Gov. Kemp’s feelings are in regards to the accountability court program, so we don’t know what kind of funding he may be sending down.”