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City court should waste less of our time

Making more fines payable online would unclog the court and save citizens grief

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There are few things quite so dreadful as the prospect of spending a morning or afternoon perched on a pew growing older and more jaded inside Atlanta's Municipal Court. Tasked with adjudicating a slew of misdemeanor offenses and — since the courts were consolidated in 2005 — traffic citations, Muni Court is so overcrowded that it's received warnings from the fire marshal about conditions in courtrooms and corridors. It's also usually behind schedule and, in general, a source of agita for all who enter its doors.

According to the city's website, there are at least 50 types of citations that will earn you a mandatory appearance in municipal court. Now, it makes sense that someone charged with misdemeanor manslaughter shouldn't simply be able to pay a fine on the Internet and be done with it. But some of the offenses for which people are required to go before a judge — having an expired tag or no proof of insurance, littering or riding a bike without both hands on the handlebars — seem less logical. And, according to a recent city audit of the court's operations, it's been more than four years since the chief judge reviewed that list. It's about time she takes another look.

In response to citizen complaints about operations and staff complaints about workloads, the City Council asked City Auditor Leslie Ward and her staff to examine the court's performance. Some of their findings are surprising — perhaps most so to the court's presumably overburdened staff. For instance, the auditor's office opines that the Atlanta Municipal Court could actually stand to reduce the number of judges, solicitors and public defenders currently on staff.

Less surprising is a recommendation to consider reducing the number of charges that require a court appearance. While about 250 traffic offenses and other minor infractions can currently be handled by paying a ticket online or over the phone, the auditor says that number could be even higher in order to "increase court efficiency and reduce costs."

It's also a way to mitigate the frustrations of citizens who must take half a day off work simply to learn their financial penance for having a broken tail light. Right now, the only obvious benefit to requiring people charged with these paltry offenses to go before a judge is that it allows court staff to justify their paychecks.

The audit doesn't go into specifics about what charges could be eliminated from the list — Ward says her staff doesn't have time to sift through the hundreds of charges — but notes that other cities have periodically downgraded charges to "unclog" their municipal courts. Court officials have referred to the audit as "inaccurate, incomplete and improperly focused," but they also "partially agreed" with the recommendation that the list of charges requiring a court appearance should be reviewed.

Another worthwhile recommendation: Begin court on time. According to the audit, morning court, which is scheduled to kick off at 8 a.m., starts late 89 percent of the time.

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