Photo Credit: Georgia Institute for Transitional Justice
Jamie Scott could have been a statistic. By his count, he was arrested 54 times between the ages of 14–37 and spent time in four different prisons before going straight and becoming “lead servant” at The Sparrow’s Nest, a local nonprofit.
But in a way, he still is. Starting with their teenage years, black boys and men in Athens are far more likely to be incarcerated than any other demographic group. They also, on average, serve longer sentences for the same crimes, according to data obtained through open records requests and analyzed by Avery Murdie, executive director of the Georgia Institute for Transitional Justice.
“Athens is a fairly progressive community in many regards,” Murdie said before a panel discussion Nov. 7 at the Athens-Clarke County Library, “but it does have its blind spots, shortcomings and challenges.”
The criminal justice system is one of them. Many white people, when presented with data, believe there must be some reason so many black men are in prison, because they perceive their own interactions with the system as fair, said Sarah Shannon, a University of Georgia sociology professor who researches race and criminal justice. While there is some evidence black men do commit more crimes, that doesn’t fully explain the disparity, she said. For example, as Flagpole has previously reported, African Americans are five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than whites, even though the races are equally likely to use the drug.
Nor is Athens unique. The data Murdie obtained from Superior Court, State Court, Juvenile Court and the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the local jail, mirrors national statistics. “This is an issue which is part of our legal system throughout our society,” Shannon said.
Black men make up 13% of Athens’ population. However, they make up 45% of those sentenced to confinement in State Court, and 60% in Superior Court, according to the data Murdie compiled. (State Court generally hears misdemeanors, while Superior Court deals with felonies.) Just under half of all cases in Juvenile Court involved African Americans. Black males also served longer sentences than white males, white females or black females, even when the data was adjusted for the charges faced and the defendants’ criminal histories.
The system is compounding, according to Shannon, because if a black man is more likely to enter the system, once in it, his history plays into further interactions. That’s something Superior Court Chief Judge Patrick Haggard said he struggles with. Once, when he heard someone had 20 priors, “that was all I needed to hear,” he said. But now, he said he considers factors like when those past offenses occurred and how serious they were. “We’re constantly looking for some sign of change,” he said.
Shannon described the criminal justice system as a series of decision points. Citizens decide whether to report a crime. Police have discretion on how many resources they put into an investigation and whether to arrest a suspect. Prosecutors have discretion on whether to bring charges and, if so, how serious the charges are. Then, prosecutors and defense lawyers negotiate on plea bargains—only 1% of felony criminal cases actually go to trial, according to Haggard. If they do, judges and juries have discretion on whether to convict and on the sentence handed down.
For African Americans, according to Shannon, the decision point often comes at the arrest stage. Hispanics are far less likely to be arrested, but they’re more likely to be prosecuted and sentenced harshly, she said.
“Where can I mitigate or reduce how those disparities affect an individual?” Municipal Court Judge Ryan Hope said he asks himself.
Various efforts are underway to fix the system. Under former Gov. Nathan Deal, the state created more accountability courts that focus on solving underlying problems like mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse, rather than punishment. The state also legalized citations in lieu of arrest for minor offenses like shoplifting and possession of small amounts of marijuana.
On a local level, earlier this year, the ACC Commission approved the “Freedom Act,” which instituted a cite-and-release policy for violating local ordinances like disorderly conduct and public intoxication. Still, the new policy won’t affect many people. Only nine individuals charged with ordinance violations spent more than 48 hours in jail last year because they couldn’t make bail, according to Hope.
In addition, courts now send automated texts to defendants reminding them of their court dates. They also organize monthly “access to justice” pop-up clinics where people can get free legal advice. “That kind of help goes a long way toward discouraging criminal activity later on,” Haggard said. He also said he’s interested in a St. Louis program called “the living room,” where police take agitated people to see a counselor, rather than to jail.
Other efforts involve community groups. The Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement has a committee devoted to the school-to-prison pipeline, said Collisa “Coco” Lankford, a high school teacher turned cop turned social worker who now runs the Clarke County School District’s alternative high school. “By the time my kids reach me, many of them are reading on a third or fourth grade level,” she said. But CCSD is moving away from zero tolerance and embracing restorative justice, which is making an impact, she added.
The Sparrow’s Nest works with inmates at the ACC Diversion Center, a halfway house where nonviolent offenders are released to work during the day, as well as the homeless and recovering substance abusers, Scott said. They help people obtain IDs, prescriptions and bus passes and provide food, showers, a place to do laundry and computer access, among other services. But Scott said he can only help those who want to be helped. “It wasn’t until I changed this,” he said, pointing to his head, “that I was able to function as a member of society.”