As America waits to see if Georgia will make history by electing the first African American woman governor in the country this November, African American women in one of Georgia’s newest cities are already making U.S. history.
Only a year after the creation of the city of South Fulton, Georgia’s fifth largest city is breaking American barriers.
In January 2018, the city’s Municipal Court began operating and in March 2018 the city’s police services officially began. The city is the first city in American history where every criminal justice department head is an African American woman.
Chief of Police Sheila Rogers is a career law enforcement professional with more than twenty-six years experience. Rogers is the city’s first police chief and one of a few women police chief around the country.
Chief Judge Tiffany Carter Sellers is a University of Georgia law school graduate and the city’s first chief judge. Sellers was selected through a panel of experienced judges from the surrounding community.
Judge Sellers hired and appointed the court administrator, Lakesiya Cofield, and the city’s first chief court clerk, Ramona Howard.
Also appointed to represent the two equally important components of any criminal justice system were two attorneys, City Solicitor LaDawn “LBJ” Jones, who prosecutes the cases and City Public Defender Viveca Famber Powell, who defends those accused of crimes.
Together, these African American women make up all the portions of the criminal justice system in the new city.
No other time in American history has black women been appointed to the top position in every department in an entire city’s criminal justice system. No other time in American history have women made up all of a city’s first set of criminal justice leadership.
This amazing first was not planned. However, it is a testament to the reason the city was founded in the first place – self-reliance and local control that properly represents the community in which they serve.
“Our goal is to ensure justice for everyone,” Sellers said. “However, as African American women we are sensitive to the history of criminal justice in our country. We want to be an example of how to do things right.”
Under Sellers’s leadership, the demographics of the court are not the only progressive attributes. Incorporated in the foundation of the City of South Fulton’s municipal court policies are details not found in other systems that have existed for years, including guaranteed access to an attorney, a robust diversion program that is infused into the court process, and overall respect for victims and the accused alike.
Sellers insists on courtroom decorum that shows respect to the accused, victims, and visitors. Likewise, the South Fulton court insist on giving each person and their case the respect they deserve from the moment they walk in the door.
Further, Sellers spends much of her time ensuring everyone fully understand what is happening in the system. The hope is to restore faith in the justice system for many of the citizens who have had less than stellar experiences in other courts.
The city’s pre-trial diversion program will allow offenders to keep a clean record in exchange for community service, education, and counseling where appropriate. The diversion program, “Second Chance South Fulton,” is paid for by the court budget and overseen by the City Solicitor, LaDawn “LBJ” Jones.
Many cities of this size do not have diversion programs.
“One of the primary purposes of laws is to protect citizens and the city,” Jones explained. “You can do that without sending everyone to jail or enforce high fees. Most people do better when they know better.”
Another progressive component of the court system is the appointment of the public defender. In most jurisdictions, a public defender is only assigned after someone proves they cannot afford a private attorney.
In South Fulton, everyone that appears before the court has an opportunity to receive appointed counsel prior to making a decision on their case.
“Although we handle misdemeanors, the cases can have serious long-term effects on the person accused,” Powell said. “Having an opportunity to advise clients ensures justice is received by all.”
In all matters, whether it is the operation of the probation department or bond considerations, the city, as well as the rights of the victims and defendant are considered.
The City of South Fulton will grow as citizens looking for a place to settle chose to live in a community where they are reassured that the police and courts in their city will be partners in making the community better.
In the City of South Fulton’s justice system, African Americans are far less likely to be arrested, prosecuted, or detained in custody because of incidents like those seen in recent news. These assurances help law-abiding citizens, particularly African Americans, feel less tense when they see blue lights in their rearview.
In addition to making history, South Fulton may become an example for the rest of the country.