PHILADELPHIA (AP) – When Deborah Gonzalez took office in January as prosecutor for the Western Judicial District of Georgia, she noticed that too few defendants, especially black defendants, were eligible for a program that promised treatment for drug addiction or mental health, not jail.
Like many court diversion programs elsewhere, potential participants in the Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties programs were disqualified for certain prior charges or contact with police. People living in poverty also struggled to qualify due to the weekly program fees.
“My philosophy is that there is racial injustice and disparities in the way people are treated in this system. And we have to be intentional in the way we approach it, ”Gonzalez said.
With a grant from a national nonprofit criminal justice advocacy group, Vera Institute of Justice, and a local organization, People Living in Recovery, Gonzalez is redesigning the program to make it more accessible.
Many of the changes adopted by states after the death of George Floyd have focused on police tactics and not on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Nationally, bipartisan congressional talks on overhaul of policing practices ended without a dealnegotiators on both sides said last week, despite promises of change from the Biden administration.
And now groups like Vera are targeting suburban communities to push through criminal justice changes without new laws.
Vera awarded 10 prosecutors approximately $ 550,000 to help reduce racial disparities in prosecutions. Prosecutors in Georgia, Virginia, Michigan, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Missouri, New York and Indiana – most of whom were elected in the past two years on progressive platforms – are reviewing agendas or policies in their offices that disproportionately affect accused of color.
Some prosecutors handle prosecutions for specific crimes or make diversion programs more inclusive. Others are looking for ways to keep minors out of the criminal justice system all together.
“There was a desire to do more right now, to tackle the system that continues to allow this to happen. So we started to wonder if there was anything more we could do with this unique moment to reimagine what a fair system looks like, ”said Jamila Hodge, former director of the Reshaping Prosecution program with Vera.
In Gonzalez district, for example, about 22% of the district’s total population is black. Of the more than 6,800 people indicted in 2019 and 2020, the majority were blacks. Fewer than 150 people were referred to the trial preparation program, and most came from a county that is only 5% black.
She hopes to double participation in her program by 2022 and will put in place controls to monitor as diversity increases.
Vera will provide assistance for 12 months. The hope is to reduce by 20% the disproportionate number of black and brown people prosecuted and imprisoned in the pilot areas. The grants require prosecutors to partner with local community organizations.
In Washtenaw County, Michigan, where Ann Arbor is located and just west of Detroit, prosecutor Eli Savit is working with a group called My Brothers Keeper to divert colored youth accused of non-violent crimes to a program. intensive mentoring. Savit, who took office in January, said he wanted to focus on interventions that occur with children who act or commit minor crimes.
“What we’re trying to do is come in early without the intervention of the criminal justice system, without creating a case that can hold them back. It can have this cascading effect on their lives. Job applications ask if you’ve ever been charged, not if you’ve been convicted, ”Savit said.
In Chatham County, Georgia, where Savannah is in the northeastern state, Deputy Chief Prosecutor Michael Edwards said an analysis of black men and boys in the criminal justice system revealed that they constituted a disproportionate number of people accused of possession of firearms.
The office, in partnership with Savannah Feed the Hungry, has developed a program called Show Us Your Guns that focuses on people between the ages of 16 and 25 who are in possession of a gun while interacting with police. . Until these young men have used these weapons to commit a crime, they are eligible for the program instead of being arrested or jailed. This requires that they return the weapon in exchange for their participation.
“We do this, knowing that guns are a third rail in conversations in the community. But we know it’s an important way to impact public safety and the lives of these minors and young men, ”said Edwards.
Edwards said the program will be tailored to individuals, seeking needs such as job training, education, mental health and addiction treatment and even partnering with the local YMCA so young men can take care of it. of themselves physically.
“Too often lawsuits are case-based, but we want it to be cause-based – looking at the underlying causes,” Edwards said.
For Shane Sims, the thought of prosecutors in all of these places making plans to consider everyone in front of them, and not just the crime they committed, gives him immense joy. Sims is the executive director of People Living in Recovery, which is working with Gonzalez in Athens, Georgia, to redesign its mental health and addiction diversion program.
He was sentenced to life over 15 years for his role as an accomplice in a theft which resulted in the death of a store clerk. He was 18 and it seemed like no one thought who he was or how he got there – that his parents were addicted to crack and that he was taking care of his younger brother on his own from a young age.
When he got out, after three guards demanded his release, he started working in the community.
“What we’re doing together is realizing that drug addiction is at the heart of so many people who enter the criminal justice system. Historically, minorities have the least consideration in deciding how to handle this, ”Sims said.