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An innovative approach to criminal justice reform: Put black women in charge

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SOUTH FULTON, Ga. — In this new Atlanta suburb, the sentence for shoplifting may include attending city council meetings instead of serving jail time. Residents found guilty of driving without a license may be required to register to vote in exchange for a reduced fine — in addition to obtaining a driver’s license.

Just over a year old, South Fulton has been receiving accolades from around the country for its unique criminal justice system. But the attention has been less about the punishments that the system hands down than about the people who lead it.

That’s because South Fulton has done something that no other U.S. city with a population of 100,000 or more has done: Put African American women in control of its criminal justice system.

There’s Solicitor LaDawn Blackett Jones, who serves as the city’s prosecutor. And there’s Chief Judge Tiffany Carter Sellers and Public Defender Viveca R. Famber Powell. The court administrator and clerks are also black women.

While insisting on upholding the law, the women say they also hope their approaches to criminal justice exhibit “empathy” and “nurturing,” as well as respect for the city’s residents.

These notions are “starkly different than the history of Southern criminal justice 50 years ago,” said historian Kevin Kruse, author of “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.” At that time, Kruse said, “it would’ve been … all white men,” and those men wouldn’t have approached black citizens in the same way.

Historians at Harvard University and elsewhere said they are not aware of any other city of at least 100,000 people with a criminal justice system led entirely by black women. The result: A focus on community policing, pretrial diversion programs and assigning public defenders to all cases — a policy that levels the playing field in the municipal court. Pretrial diversion programs give certain defendants the opportunity to accept community-service work or mandatory involvement in civic life, like attending city council meetings, instead of jail time or hefty fines.

There’s also the “green team,” an option for certain offenders who can’t afford fines. Instead, they’re required to work with the city’s parks and recreation department for $15 an hour.

This isn’t about being soft on crime, said Blackett Jones, who was charged with creating the pretrial diversion program.

“Let’s be clear,” she said. “I’m a prosecutor. I do not mind sending people to jail.”

But at the same time, she hopes her city is creating “a framework for community-oriented courts that could be an example for the world.”

Another feature of the system comes from Carter Sellers, the chief judge, who is intent on educating defendants in her courtroom about their rights and the judicial process — even if it means taking longer to finish the day’s schedule.

“In my community, there’s a stigma that the system will railroad them,” Carter Sellers said.

“For many people, it’s their first interaction with the justice system,” she added. “It’s important to slow down — even if five minutes.”

After a recent day’s last case, when a woman and three children who arrived with a young man accused of shoplifting stood to leave, a young black girl shouted out, “Bye, bye, now!”

Carter Sellers answered pleasantly, “Bye!”

“That young girl reminded me of my daughter,” she said afterward.

“It’s important for judges to strike a balance between a sense of decorum and understanding, compassion and empathy with the people they live with,” she added.

Carter Sellers and the two other women insist their roles at the top of South Fulton’s legal system happened organically: The mayor, working with a panel of Superior Court judges, appointed the chief judge, while the city council and interim city attorney chose the solicitor and public defender.

At the same time, reaching this landmark is not completely out of place. South Fulton is the “blackest city in America,” said city councilman khalid kamau [sic], who also is a founding member of the Atlanta chapter of Black Lives Matter. South Fulton’s population is 89 percent African American. The city’s mayor, Bill Edwards, is black, as are all seven council members. Five of them are also women.

Then there’s the history of Atlanta itself, which has long included a robust black professional class, including in the criminal justice system, noted Famber Powell, South Fulton’s public defender. That history includes Leah Ward Sears, who in 2005 became the nation’s first black female state Supreme Court chief justice, and Kimberly M. Esmond Adams, who has served nearly a decade on Fulton County’s Supreme Court.

Famber Powell is the South Fulton group’s veteran, having practiced law since 1984.

“My first experience was in front of a black female judge,” she said, recalling a job she took in juvenile court after graduating from University of Georgia’s law school. “Atlanta has always been on the cutting edge … [and] it makes sense to me that this would happen here.”

South Fulton sits southwest of Atlanta, in a 100-square-mile, formerly unincorporated area of Fulton County.

It’s the 11th city to incorporate in the metro Atlanta area since 2005, political maneuvers that proponents have framed as mostly economic — a way for residents to take control of tax bases, as well as their political and fiscal destiny.

Experts say race has always been part of the “cityhood movement.” The first city to incorporate was majority-white Sandy Springs, wresting governance from the mostly black Fulton County commission.

Forming those cities left a “huge chunk” of unincorporated land in Fulton County with mostly African American residents, said Shetia Kelty, who keeps a blog called “City of South Fulton Observer.” Kelty, who has lived in the county for 13 years, said the remaining county residents lacked adequate representation on the county commission and efficient use of their tax dollars.

In the November 2016 election, 59 percent of voters supported cityhood for the area that was later named South Fulton.

“It’s not a black-white issue,” Kelty said, describing the impetus for incorporating the city. “It’s a green issue.”

The city’s criminal justice approach could have effects yet to be measured, particularly since fewer than two dozen people have entered pretrial diversions, according to Blackett Jones.

“Ultimately, we should expect to see fewer black bodies going through the system,” said Michael Leo Owens, political science professor at Emory University. Also, if successful, “we will see people pushing for incorporation in [other] places … including this [approach] in their platforms.”

Mayor Edwards backs the court’s approach, even with the possibility of reduced revenue from fines and the costs of the court programs, including a person to oversee pretrial diversion participants.

“What’s the cost of recidivism?” Edwards asked, meaning he hopes the criminal justice and policing policies will save money by reducing crime. Also, he adds, community service programs bring “value to the city,” through the work participants carry out.

Sheila Rogers, South Fulton’s interim police chief, said the city’s approach prizes community relationships. Many incidents involving excessive use of force or police brutality in other cities occurred where “the police department doesn’t have a relationship with the people they serve,” she said.

Rogers, who is a black woman, said the city is sending its 90 officers — most of whom are black — into neighborhoods more often than before the area was incorporated, Rogers said.

“We have two-way communication,” with the city’s residents, she said. “We don’t have a situation where the police is one side, and they’re on the other.”

Meanwhile, Blackett Jones frames South Fulton’s historic achievement in another way.

“It’s not just the first time a criminal justice system has been run by African American women,” she says. “It’s the first time one has been run by women. All Americans can feel proud that our country has come this far.”

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