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‘Smart Justice’ Makes Stronger Communities

By John Eaves Fulton County Chairman | 8/23/2013, 6 a.m.
I recently had an experience no parent ever wants to have. A few weeks ago, my 18-year old son was ...
89 percent of the inmates in the Fulton County jail are young black men.

I recently had an experience no parent ever wants to have. A few weeks ago, my 18-year old son was held up at gunpoint. Fortunately he was unharmed and the thieves made off with only his cellphone. I came out of that experience with a renewed determination to do something about the rising rates of criminal activity and recidivism in our community. My son, as victim, and the young men who robbed him are now part of a disturbing set of dire national and local statistics.

I am very concerned about the future of African American males in our community. Too many African American boys are dropping out of high school, too many are in prison or jail, and too many commit violent crimes upon others.

According to the United States Bureau of Justice, 844,600 African American males were in jail or prison in 2010, representing 40.2 percent of the incarcerated population, even though African Americans males make up only 13.6 percent of the U.S. population.

Locally, it gets worse. 89 percent of the inmates in the Fulton County jail are young black men. We have a recidivism rate of 80-90 percent. Our criminal justice system costs taxpayers almost 222 million dollars a year. This is unacceptable and we must work together as a community to address the problems inherent in creating these statistics.

There is growing bipartisan agreement across the nation that the criminal justice system and its “tough on crime” approach of the last few decades, isn’t working. Mandatory minimum sentencing and other misdirected measures have resulted in overcrowded prisons simply warehousing inmates with no regard for rehabilitation, alternative sentencing or re-entry programs. The cost of this mass incarceration is staggering. Just recently, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department will roll back mandatory minimums on low-level, nonviolent drug crimes. He will also reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates and find alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals. I suspect there will be more such actions to come on the national and state levels.

On the county level, I have recently created the Fulton County Smart Justice Advisory Council or (SJAC). This board is composed of state and local Justice Department officials as well as those from outside organizations such as 100 Black Men of Atlanta and the Georgia Justice Project. I have also asked concerned citizens to serve. People like Kate Boccia, whose son is serving a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years without the possibility of parole for armed robbery. He never had a weapon, never stole anything and has no priors. SJAC will foster cooperation among agencies and the courts to advise and recommend solutions to these issues. The goal is three-fold: to reduce recidivism rates, find alternative programs for first-time offenders, and help motivated inmates reclaim their lives.

To quote Attorney General Holder, “A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.”  It is time for us to break that cycle in Fulton County.