Prosecutors push for racial justice through non-profit grants

Deborah Gonzalez, the Western Judicial District of Georgia's district attorney, noticed that there were not enough defendants, particularly Black defendants, who could be eligible for treatment for their addictions or mental health. She was also concerned about the possibility of them going to jail.

Prosecutors push for racial justice through non-profit grants

As with many other court diversion programs, participants in Oconee and Athens-Clarke counties programs were disqualified due to previous charges or contact with the police. Weekly program fees made it difficult for people living in poverty to qualify.

"My belief is that there is racial inequity and disparities in the way people are treated by this system. Gonzalez stated that we must be deliberate in how we address this issue.

Gonzalez has been granted a grant by Vera Institute of Justice (a national criminal justice advocacy organization) and People Living in Recovery (a local organization), to redesign the program in order to make it more accessible.

Many of the reforms enacted by the states after George Floyd's passing have focused on police tactics, and not racial disparities within the criminal justice system. Nationally, bipartisan congressional negotiations on overhauling policing practice have ended without an agreement. This despite promises by the Biden administration.

Vera and other groups are now targeting suburban communities in order to pass policing reforms without any new laws.

Vera gave $550,000 to 10 prosecutors to reduce racial disparities during prosecution. Georgia, Virginia and Michigan prosecutors are looking into policies or programs that adversely affect defendants of color in their offices.

Prosecutors are looking at specific offenses or expanding diversion programs. Some prosecutors are also looking for ways to keep juveniles from the criminal justice system.

"There was a desire for more, to do more to change the system that allows this to continue." We started to ask if there was anything we could do with this moment to reimagine the system as it is," Jamila Hodge, former director of the Reshaping Prosecution Program together with Vera, said.

Gonzalez's district is an example. It has 22% Black population. The majority of the 6,800+ people who were charged in 2019 and 2020 were Black. The pretrial program was referred to less than 150 people, most of whom were from counties that are only 5 percent Black.

She plans to double the participation in her program by 2022 and will monitor whether diversity is increasing.

Vera will be providing support for 12 month. In the pilot areas, the goal is to decrease the number of Black and Brown people being prosecuted and imprisoned by 20%. Prosecutors are required to work with local community-based groups as part of the grants.

Eli Savit, a prosecutor in Washtenaw County (Michigan), is working with My Brothers Keeper to divert young men of color from nonviolent crime into an intensive mentoring program. Savit, who was elected in January, stated that he would like to concentrate on the interventions for minor crimes and kids who are committing them.

"We're trying to intervene early, without the involvement of the criminal justice system and without creating a record which can hold them back. This can have a cascading impact on their lives. Savit stated that job applications should ask whether or not you have been charged.

Chief assistant district attorney Michael Edwards of Chatham County in Georgia, where Savannah is located in the northeast corner of the state, said that an analysis of Black boys and men in the criminal justice system revealed they make up a disproportionate amount of those being charged with gun possession.

In partnership with Savannah Feed the Hungry the office developed Show Us Your Guns, a program that targets people aged 16-25 who are caught with a gun while they interact with police. The program is open to all young men who have not used the weapons in the commission of a crime and aren't subject to arrest or jail. They must surrender the gun to be eligible for participation.

"We do this knowing firearms are a third rail in community conversations. Edwards stated that this is an important way to have an impact on public safety and the lives of these young men.

Edwards stated that the program will be customized to each individual, and look at needs such as job training, education and mental health treatment. There may also be a partnership with the local YMCA for young men who want to take care of their physical well-being.

Edwards stated that prosecutions are too often case-based. However, we want to see the root causes.

Shane Sims finds it overwhelming to be happy that all the prosecutors are making plans to look at the person in front of them and not just the crime. Sims is the executive Director of People Living in Recovery. He is currently working with Gonzalez in Athens to redesign its mental and addiction diversion program.

For his role as a complicit in a robbery which resulted in the death of a clerk, he was sentenced to 15 years plus life. He was only 18 years old and no one seemed to care about who he was or where he came from. His parents had been addicted to crack cocaine, and he was caring for his younger brother alone since a young age.

After three wardens had petitioned for his release he was allowed to go and he began working in the community.

"What we do together is realizing that substance abuse is at the root of many who enter the criminal justice process." Sims stated that historically, minorities have been the least considered when it comes to deciding how to handle this.

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