If Athens has learned anything over the years, it’s that there are no easy answers to the problems that leave far too many citizens mired in poverty and hopelessly cut off from the opportunities many can take for granted. Obviously, education in the form of good public schools is a big part of the solution, and for the past 20 years or so, that’s been my main focus in our community. But like a lot of us, I have also come to realize that among the many interlocking systems that directly influence results in school, our criminal justice system is another area where we need big changes to achieve the kind of community we want. And that’s why I support Deborah Gonzalez for District Attorney in Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties.
My concerns about the criminal justice system relate directly to our desire for “good schools for all kids.” Many people don’t know this, including me until recently, but in Georgia the DA is prosecutor in all juvenile cases. This a great source of power, which can be used for good or bad. Many people in our community have grappled with ending the “school-to-prison pipeline.” That is the familiar term for the manifestly unfair system that pulls far too many Black and brown students in our schools into the juvenile justice system. Once in this “pipeline,” they all too often end up in the adult criminal legal system and face daunting odds of a lifetime in and out of jail, with shattered dreams and stunted opportunities.
This very real school-to-prison pipeline is a powerful force holding our community back, damaging families, and perpetuating inequitable results. Of course, we hold meetings, convene task forces and send emails and are very concerned on social media — all that’s fine and good and in some cases, helpful. No doubt that many well-intentioned people are working hard to change this cruel and destructive system, but the system just keeps grinding up young lives and spitting out damaged young adults. And then, no matter what else we do, by that point it is too late in far too many cases.
Black boys are 13 % of the population of Athens, but from 2014-18, 49 % of the juvenile charges brought in juvenile court were against Black boys:13 % and 49 %. Think about those numbers and ask yourself if the current system is good enough, if this is the kind of community we want. Or, as some would assert, this makes Athens a model for criminal-justice reform. We are not. If we were, Athens would not have such a stark disparity in our system’s treatment of minority students and other children.
But there is good news. This is one of those rare times where it turns out that the seemingly intractable problem does have a simple solution in the form of a new approach in the office of the juvenile prosecutor. The DA’s enormous power over the juvenile-justice system is largely discretionary and unreviewable. If we elect a DA who wants a different, better and more just system, then we will have one. The DA can do more to end the school-to-prison pipeline in Athens by changing a few policies and writing a couple of memos than the rest of us can accomplish with even more meetings, marches and manifestos. Sometimes the power to bring about the change we seek really is in our grasp, if we have the courage to act.
That is why I support Deborah Gonzalez for District Attorney. Deborah is committed to a platform of proven reform and national best practices that will increase public safety while working with our other elected leaders and the community to end the unjust and punitive policies that have ruined so many lives right here in Athens. Gonzalez is a strong advocate for victims of crime, and she knows that too often the current system has failed them as well. She is a leader who will build on what is working and assemble a strong team of experienced prosecutors to make sure those who commit serious crimes are held accountable. But she is also an outsider and reformer who isn’t beholden to any old-boys networks or how we have always done things.
Albert Einstein supposedly said the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but somehow expecting a different result. That is what we have been doing here for 50 years. It has not worked. It is time for change. It is time to elect Deborah Gonzalez our next District Attorney.
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