Read­ers sound off about fail­ure to keep teen slay­ing sus­pect locked up

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - METRO - Chris Joyner

I got an ear­ful from read­ers who re­sponded to last week’s col­umn about Delvin Gates, the 17-yearold whose string of bur­glar­ies and other prop­erty crimes tor­mented neigh­bors in West End over the last sev­eral years.

Gates now stands ac­cused of mur­der in DeKalb County.

Folks had a lot of con­cerns about Gates, but the com­mon thread is the be­lief the state needs to do a bet­ter job com­mu­ni­cat­ing and co­or­di­nat­ing when it comes to young of­fend­ers.

Gates was a prob­lem for res­i­dents in south­west At­lanta for years lead­ing up to his sen­tenc­ing in March 2016 in Ful­ton County Ju­ve­nile Court. The At­lanta Po­lice De­part­ment had iden­ti­fied him as one of its top ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers in that part of the city and had urged res­i­dents to at­tend his court date to show the judge their de­sire to have him taken off the streets.

John Pavlin, a neigh­bor­hood ac­tivist and lo­cal con­struc­tion com­pany owner, was among those who went to court mul­ti­ple times as Gates’ hear­ing was resched­uled time and again. “It was like they were wear­ing us down so we don’t show up,” he re­called.

Pavlin said he and other res­i­dents stuck it out and were dis­tressed when a case worker from the state rec­om­mended the ju­ve­nile equiv­a­lent of house ar­rest for the teen, even with neigh­bors and sev­eral po­lice of­fi­cers there in a show of force.

“If we weren’t there I don’t think he would have even gone away,” he re­called. “I was like, ‘Oh, my good­ness, the cops are telling you how bad he is.’”

The judge in the case sen­tenced Gates to three years in state cus­tody, and res­i­dents who were there told me they fig­ured that he would be locked up for a good long while. In fact, the sen­tence was for six months of con­fine­ment with the rest served un­der su­per­vised pro­ba­tion. With credit for time served, Gates was back out by sum­mer 2016.

Pavlin said the ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem let the pub­lic down “big time” by go­ing so soft.

“I was so pissed when I heard he was back out,” Pavlin said. “Then this. I’m dis­gusted.”

Re­peat of­fender

The “this” is the news that Gates faces mur­der charges in

the July shoot­ing death of Joseph Livolsi, a movie spe­cial ef­fects tech­ni­cian and fa­ther of two. Livolsi was killed in a DeKalb County apart­ment in July. Gates was charged in Septem­ber and is be­ing held in the county jail with­out bond.

Gates has only been charged in the crime and may not be guilty, but the fact that he was out of ju­ve­nile cus­tody at all has peo­ple across the metro area shak­ing their heads.

Harold Joseph, 76, of Fayetteville, said he un­der­stands that the sys­tem needs to treat young of­fend­ers dif­fer­ently from adults, but giv­ing a no­to­ri­ous of­fender a few scant months in de­ten­tion?

“My good­ness, when do you cut it off? That was to­tally ridicu­lous,” he said.

There are a lot of rea­sons why ju­ve­niles are not locked up. For most, jail isn’t the best op­tion un­less you are try­ing to make a hard­ened crim­i­nal out of them. Most rea­son­able peo­ple would agree that so­ci­ety should make every ef­fort to re­form and re­di­rect chil­dren who make a mis­take — even a se­ri­ous one.

Peo­ple in West End tell me that’s the ap­proach they took with Gates. A lo­cal com­pany that hires at-risk youth tried to bring him in and high-rank­ing po­lice and lo­cal politi­cians spoke to his fam­ily. Noth­ing worked.

Pavlin said a neigh­bor of his came home to find Gates on her porch hold­ing her lap­top. He was wear­ing an an­kle mon­i­tor at the time from a prior scrape with the court, he said.

Is bad in­for­ma­tion shar­ing to blame?

What con­fused a lot of read­ers is the idea that the sen­tenc­ing judge may not have had all the in­for­ma­tion in front of him. Ful­ton County Ju­ve­nile Judge Wil­lie Lovett sen­tenced Gates, but he died in Jan­uary so we don’t know ex­actly what was on his mind. How­ever, Chief Judge Bradley Boyd said it ap­peared the kid’s record didn’t match his no­to­ri­ous rep­u­ta­tion.

“I’m not see­ing any­thing on the record that shows prior of­fenses,” Boyd told me as he looked through Gates’ file.

That doesn’t mean Gates didn’t have prior ju­ve­nile con­vic­tions. Boyd said the judge may not have had ac­cess to prior of­fenses that were sealed as part of a sen­tenc­ing agree­ment or some other rea­son.

That sounded strange to some read­ers.

“It’s one thing to pro­tect a ju­ve­nile from pub­lic shame, but a judge who is re­view­ing a case has to know,” said Bil­lie Brown, 72, of De­catur. “How can they make a sen­si­ble de­ci­sion when they don’t have all the facts?”

“That piece of in­for­ma­tion just sur­prised the hell out of me,” echoed Joseph. “I can’t un­der­stand any pos­si­ble rea­son for that.”

Turns out that com­mu­ni­ca­tion — es­pe­cially be­tween ju­ris­dic­tions — is a real prob­lem in the Ge­or­gia ju­ve­nile sys­tem and ham­pers judges’ abil­ity to make in­formed de­ci­sions when it comes to re­peat of­fend­ers.

“It’s not like the adult sys­tem where we have GCIC,” said Joe Vig­nati, as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner of the Ge­or­gia De­part­ment of Ju­ve­nile Jus­tice.

GCIC is the com­put­er­ized sys­tem that keeps ar­rest and pros­e­cu­tion records from lo­cal and state po­lice agen­cies across the state. If a pros­e­cu­tor pulls a “rap sheet” for a sus­pect, that’s where they get it — un­less the sus­pect is a ju­ve­nile.

“We don’t have a sys­tem like that for ju­ve­niles in Ge­or­gia,” Vig­nati said.

Pi­lot project aims to share data

That means there is lim­ited in­for­ma­tion shar­ing among ju­ve­nile courts, a sit­u­a­tion made more com­pli­cated be­cause Ge­or­gia has two ju­ve­nile court sys­tems. Twenty-two coun­ties, mostly large ur­ban ones like Ful­ton, op­er­ate their own ju­ve­nile courts, while the rest of the state is on a sep­a­rate state sys­tem.

As you might ex­pect, these courts don’t have an ef­fi­cient way to share in­for­ma­tion with each other.

“A youth could be on pro­ba­tion in one county and of­fend (in an­other) and the other county wouldn’t know,” Vig­nati said.

Vig­nati said a fix to that se­ri­ous com­mu­ni­ca­tion fail­ure is in the pi­lot phase right now. The Ju­ve­nile Data Ex­change will al­low for past crim­i­nal data and “risk as­sess­ments” to be shared across ju­ris­dic­tions, he said.

It’s an idea cham­pi­oned by Lovett, the late judge who sen­tenced Gates.

Would such in­for­ma­tion shar­ing have re­sulted in a dif­fer­ent out­come for Gates? Hard to say.

De­tailed in­for­ma­tion about ju­ve­nile records are gen­er­ally not made pub­lic, but Gates’ prior run-ins with the law ap­pear to be within Ful­ton County, rather than across ju­ris­dic­tional lines. That would sug­gest the prob­lem lies within Ful­ton County, per­haps in the way in­for­ma­tion is shared with judges.

Both Boyd and Vig­nati said there are other pos­si­bil­i­ties as well. Gates’ prior ap­pear­ances in ju­ve­nile court may not have re­sulted in con­vic­tions be­cause wit­nesses didn’t ap­pear or the district at­tor­ney’s of­fice de­cided not to pros­e­cute be­cause the ev­i­dence was weak. It’s a com­pli­cated sys­tem that is hard to ex­plain to the pub­lic, Vig­nati said.

What­ever the cause, res­i­dents ex­pect bet­ter pro­tec­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion from their gov­ern­ment than they got here.

Devlin Gates, 17, is charged in the shoot­ing death of Joseph Livolsi.


Chief Judge Bradley J. Boyd said the record made avail­able to the sen­tenc­ing Ju­ve­nile Court judge did not ap­pear to match the no­to­ri­ous rep­u­ta­tion of slay­ing sus­pect Devlin Gates.

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