Chatham County’s prosecutor’s office is opening up its case files for an intense examination of its case files with the aim of increasing public safety and fairness in the criminal justice system.

The district attorney has partnered with a nonprofit called Justice Innovation Lab for the data analysis. The group recently worked with Charleston, S.C., where the organization recommended that prosecutors implement a “screening” practice to ensure that only criminal cases with solid evidence make it into the funnel of cases.

The goal of the Charleston recommendation was to reduce the backlog of cases made worse by COVID-19 shutdown of the courts and ensure prosecutors prioritize worthwhile cases, according to Jared Fishman, executive director and founder of the Washington D.C.-based non-profit.

Fishman, a former federal prosecutor who prosecuted the 2015 police killing of Walter Scott in North Charleston, said the group is processing a first tranche of data from DA Shalena Cook Jones’ office in Savannah.

“We will likely do similar interventions like we did in Charleston in terms of being able to screen bad cases out of the system earlier, and to create a better relationship with the police to keep those cases from entering,”  Fishman said.

In Chatham County, the organization will look at several factors, Fishman said, including:

  • What crimes prosecutors are spending their most time on
  • Potentially burdensome fines and fees
  • The types of sentences defendants are receiving
  • How long people are being held in jail before trial
  • The average time for the DA’s office to get through cases
  • Any disparities in race or gender or other factors

At a recent speech defending her record, Jones, a Democrat, said her new approach to criminal justice is underpinned by better data collection and reallocation of resources to get at root problems of crime.

Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook-Jones speaking at a NAACP meeting. Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current GA

Local Republicans politicians have linked a minor rise in violent crimes in Savannah — which is mirrored across many U.S. cities — to the DA’s policies.

“Contrary to what the current DA believes, not every criminal can be hugged into becoming a good citizen,” Anthony Burton, a former assistant district attorney and former candidate for local judge, wrote on Facebook in a recent commentary against Jones.

Crime feels worse now for citizens, Jones said in her speech, because Covid exposed the underbelly of an overburdened system.

“People want to talk about this increase in violent crime that has happened post-Covid. But that part of the equation actually hasn’t changed,” the she said in her talk in downtown Savannah. “I’m here to tell you that Covid is the proverbial match that lit the powder keg of all of society’s ills.”

Fishman said it is too early to tell what exactly is causing the rise in violent crime across the U.S. — more data analysis is needed.

Fishman said there is a growing consensus among many criminal justice experts that America’s system of criminal accountability is not working. He said that holds among several different metrics: recidivism, victim satisfaction and money spent.

“We spend hundreds of billions of dollars incarcerating people, policing people. And if that increased our public safety, then maybe that would all be worth it,” he said. “But we don’t see that.”

He hopes that the 18-month project examining Chatham County’s data will  identify problems and help prompt solutions to make residents feel safer.