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February 26, 2020

Court Watchers Find Problems in Athens Criminal Justice System

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Photo Credit: Athens-Clarke County

In February 2019, Oconee Street United Methodist Church, along with Athens for Everyone, held a daylong training session to learn how to observe the goings-on in the Athens-Clarke County courts. We feel it is important and imperative that citizens see and hear firsthand how our courts of law function (or don't) and whether or not they mete out justice that is consistent, rehabilitative and redemptive.  

Facilitating our first "Courtwatch" training were ACC Municipal Judge Ryan Hope, UGA law professor Russell Gabriel and attorneys Ryan Swingle of Athens and Sarah Gehrety from the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. More than 60 people attended the event. Since that time, volunteers from the Athens community have been regularly attending a variety of court hearings, with an eye toward due process, courtroom demeanor and racial discrimination.

Our volunteers have observed proceedings in Municipal, Magistrate, State, Superior and Juvenile courts. We've sat in on probation revocation hearings, first appearances and bond hearings—even a trial or two. Some of us have met with the Public Defender's office and with several presiding judges. We've had informal conversations with prosecuting and defense attorneys, law enforcement, court clerks, probation officers and others. We've been meeting with representatives of the UGA School of Law and anticipate student and faculty involvement in courtwatching this year. We've definitely had an impact—folks know we're watching! 

Let me briefly share some of our observations as courtwatchers:

• Though the court proceedings are advertised as "public," we often find ourselves straining to hear what's being said in the courtroom. Many of the "actors"—prosecutors, defenders, probation officers—don't use the microphones, making it next to impossible to decipher what's transpiring. 

• Defendants who are brought from the jail sit en masse in open court and are "interviewed" by their lawyers—almost always a public defender—within earshot of other prisoners and those of us observing. There is little, if any, confidentiality between defendant and lawyer.  

• Defendants are disproportionately African American. Typically, three out of four jailed defendants are black. Conversely, 95% of the courtroom "players"—judges, lawyers, probation officers, bailiffs, sheriff's deputies—are white.

• In some courtrooms, interpreters are not made available. This is particularly true in Magistrate Court. Spanish-speaking defendants cannot possibly understand much of what's being said to or about them. In other courts—Municipal and State, for example—interpreters are provided.

• Then there are the shackles and handcuffs. Every defendant who is brought from the jail to the courthouse is cuffed and shackled from the time they leave the jail until they return. These imprisoned defendants appear in court in orange (men) or gray (women) shirts and pants, ankles chained together, wrists cuffed in front at the waist. It is, to be clear, dehumanizing and discriminatory. If you are black and/or poor, unable to make bail and often without an attorney when you enter the courtroom, you are relegated to what smacks of slavery and has to give everyone the impression you are guilty as charged. Additionally, when these cuffed and shackled defendants are asked to "raise your right hand," they can at best raise a finger on that right hand. Signing documents is difficult. In many instances, prisoners who stand at the podium while their cases are heard are unable to adjust their wardrobe to appear presentable. Sheriff's personnel often have to pull up a prisoner's pants because they've fallen below his or her buttocks.

Our Courtwatch participants have brought these and other observations to the attention of many of the judges and other courtroom personnel. In some instances, changes are being made (or encouraged). At this point, no one seems able or willing to address the handcuffing and shackling issue. We plan on pursuing it further.

We who are observing the courts believe that it's having an impact on those who play integral roles within the courtroom setting. Our courtrooms, even though they are open to the public, are generally not places that are often scrutinized by the citizenry. We feel that our presence—your presence—shines a light on what goes on and enhances the possibilities for fairness and justice to occur.

We'll be holding another Courtwatch training event on Saturday, May 2, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens, 780 Timothy Road. We'll meet from 9 a.m.–2 p.m. More detailed information will be coming your way if you'll contact me (johnvodicka@comcast.net) or Steve Williams (stevewilma@aol.com). Please get the word out to those you think might want to get involved.

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