NAACP’s Criminal Justice Forum

confronts fear, fairness and mis-education issues

By Tomi Morris Johnson

tomij@wingcomltd.com  ©2004 WingcomLtd. All Rights Reserved.

 

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recently sponsored a community forum at Marietta City Hall to address criminal justice issues affecting people of color living in present day America.

March 22, 2004, Marietta, GA…History is replete with stories of noble persons who were prosecuted and jailed after being labeled heretics, blasphemers, outside agitators and terrorists.   Daniel, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela were all incarcerated for breaking laws. These people, however, had moral agendas.

 

Our criminal justice system is supposedly non-discriminatory and legally admonishes judgments based on ethnicity or skin color. Programs are in place to ensure fairness, however, the reality is jails and prisons continue to overflow with African Americans disproportionately, not because they are “habitually bad or mischievous”, but because they are deemed “serious offenders” who have “sinned against society.” Laws that legislatures pass, policemen enforce, and judges rule upon hurt minorities most.

 

 “We judge people who have committed what I call the seven deadly sins:  murder, armed robbery, rape, aggravated sodomy, kidnapping, aggravated child molestation, and aggravated battery,” said Judge Robert E. Flournoy, III, Superior Court of Cobb County. “As a judge, I’ve sworn an oath to treat people fairly, and to give them a public and speedy trial.  I also consider myself compassionate,” added Flournoy.

 

Cobb County NAACP President Deanne Bonner (foreground) stated that the local branch has been receiving complaints from inmates who have been waiting in jail as long as six months before they talk to a public defender. Panel members included Sol. Gen. B. Morgan, Judge D. Schuster, Judge R. Flournoy, Judge N. Campbell, and Attorney C. McManus.

 

“I think it’s wrong that Cobb County has never had an African American Superior Court judge,” said candidate Joan Davis outside the chamber meeting room which speaks to the sensitivity presiding judges have towards people of color. “I want to see that statistic changed, and I’m gearing up my campaign,” Davis stated. 

 

Even if Davis is elected Cobb County’s first African American superior court judge, one wonders if the system itself will treat black people and the poor fairly and justly.  Many believe that the criminal justice system is warehousing for blacks and the end of the line for kids turned adults coming from educational systems that use behavior disorder classrooms as staging grounds for juvenile detention. Other people attending the forum voiced concerns over inability to pay for a good attorney, fear of local police, hamstrung judges, and ignorance of the law.

 

“I know that doing drugs is wrong, but I had no idea that having sex could land me in prison for 10 years until a recent case here in Georgia made the news,” Sebastian Bonner told the judges on the panel. “That sort of information needs to reach us in the high schools,” said Bonner, a student at Kennesaw Mountain who says most outreach programs are geared to elementary and middle school children.

 

America’s criminal justice system is in crisis because it is considered colorblind but in reality is racially prejudiced, with uneducated blacks being disproportionately placed behind bars or on probation. Those who wind up in overcrowded and increasingly privatized prisons are sometimes the products of behavioral disorder/special education classes in public schools.

 

Today’s children are receiving conflicting messages on the consequences of crime, right and wrong, and fairness. While the media endorses the murder of terrorists without due process of law in retaliation for crimes committed against the United States, petty drug dealers are receiving more prison time than fraudulent, billionaire executives. The image of a black man is increasingly portrayed as a professional basketball player/rapist or cult hero/child molester, not a businessman or practicing physician. Poor self-esteem leads to entrance into the criminal justice system.

 

“Kids are getting in trouble because of drugs, both legal and illegal,” said Attorney Connie McManus who added, “The best way to keep children out of jail is to keep them in school.”  Many black kids, however, are cornered in classroom environments where fear, stress, prescription drug use, and anger have negative outcomes that do not include gaining wisdom and knowledge.  Often, the result is violent acts being committed in and out of school.

 

Novella Billups lives in Marietta and is the mother of four.  “There should be other programs in place to motivate kids in school besides the ‘fear’ of the criminal justice system.  They are telling our children that if they misbehave, they will be brought in front of a judge,” Billups said. “Rehabilitation should take precedent before punishment,” said Superior Court Judge Danny Schuster.

 

“Communities need to create environments where children have hope.  Children who have hope don’t behave inappropriately when it comes to sexuality, drugs, or violence.”

                                Dr. David Satcher, Former US Surgeon General

 

“We can’t stay in the courthouse and just sentence folks,” said Traffic Court Judge Nancy Campbell.  “We’ve got to get out into the community, form partnerships, and mentor our youth,” Campbell said.

 

Victims of non-violent crimes also have difficulty receiving justice unless they can pay large sums to hire an attorney.  Often, that means coming up with thousands of dollars for a retainer or signing an agreement with a lawyer to make monthly payments. Legal counselors rarely take contingency cases, and sometimes the only recourse to dealing with a bad attorney you have paid money to but received no results is filing a complaint with the local bar association.

 

Some plaintiffs have been successful winning judgments in Cobb County courtrooms.  On March 18, 2004, a press release announced that Thomas, Kennedy, Sampson and Patterson, the oldest African American law firm in Georgia headquartered in Atlanta, had obtained a final judgment in the Cobb County Courts for $500,000 against Kaiser Permanente, America's largest not-for-profit health maintenance organization. The claim arose from the negligent medical treatment rendered to the plaintiff, a 28-year-old woman, in August 1997 at Kaiser’s Cumberland Parkway location for a vagina burn injury.

 

“Of course, no amount of money can make up for the pain, injury or mental anguish that my client has suffered over the past seven years, but the settlement assures her that her permanent medical condition, caused by the defendants, will be taken care of. It also sends a signal to all healthcare organizations and physicians that avoidable mistakes like these won’t be tolerated,” said Attorney Woody Sampson.

According to Judge Flournoy, a victim of a crime does not need a lawyer. The accused defendant needs a lawyer to represent him or her, but the victim does not require legal counsel. In one sense, the victim's advocate is the prosecutor or district attorney's office. The district attorney's office has a victim/witness advocate program to help and assist the victims of crimes. The only time a victim would need a lawyer is if the victim wanted to sue the criminal defendant for damages, like the family of Nicole Simpson sued O.J. for her wrongful death. But this rarely happens as 99% of all criminal defendants are poor with no money to pay damages to the victim.

In the meantime, many pro se filers who go to court representing themselves seldom obtain justice, especially if they are looking for a monetary award. Judges often refuse to hear such cases when brought before the bench and suggest pro se filers wait to hire an attorney, which further exacerbates the problem, leaving the case on the judge’s calendar for years.

 

“Wait” almost always means “never.”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

                                   

Sebastian Bonner (r) sits next to his grandfather who is a bail bondsman.  “As soon as we get our young men out of jail, they wind up in there again. We have to do something about repeat offenders,” Mr. Bonner said.

 

 

Audience participants were encouraged to learn more about the circuit defender system, the pro se program, the public defender’s office, legal aid, the volunteer lawyer’s program, the statewide defender’s program, and to maintain familiar relationships with local judges, police, attorneys, prosecutors, and parole officers in their communities.

 

Solicitor General Barry Morgan, who deals mostly with traffic violation offenders, said his office has an 11,000+ caseload.  “I try to remain colorblind, but not everybody is,” Morgan said. All panelists agreed they welcome the opportunity to work with community outreach programs.  For more information, contact the Cobb County Solicitor General’s office at 770-528-8580 or Judge Robert Flournoy, III at 678-581-5400. To learn more about Georgia’s criminal justice system, go to:

http://www.state.ga.us/cjcc/sac.html.

NOTE:  Georgia’s Statutory Rape Law (Per OCGA 16-6-3)

In Georgia, you can go to jail for having sex! The law states:

·         If you have sexual intercourse with any person under the age of 16 years, you will have committed statutory rape.

·         A person 21 years of age or older convicted of statutory rape shall be imprisoned for a minimum of ten and up to 20 years.

·         A person age 17-20 convicted of statutory rape shall be imprisoned for one to 20 years.

·         If the victim is 14 or 15 years of age and the person convicted is no more than three years older than the victim, the person shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

·         It does not matter if you are male or female.

·         It does not matter if you are unaware of the victim's age.

·         It does not matter if the sex is consensual.

The information in this article is the opinion of the author and, therefore, should not be construed as libelous.