The Current

Meet the black women doing justice differently in Georgia

The new city of South Fulton, Ga., is attracting attention and inspiring hope because it was briefly the first city in U.S. history where the entire criminal justice system was run by black women.

South Fulton, Ga. was first U.S city where entire criminal justice system run by black women

This image of eight black women, the leaders of South Fulton, Ga.'s justice system, went viral over the summer. (Reginald Duncan/Cranium Creation)

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It wasn't Justin Parks's first day in court.

"I did two years in juvenile, I did five years for aggravated assault," said Parks, a black resident of South Fulton, a new city incorporated in Georgia in May of 2017.

The 28-year-old former gang member had already started turning his life around when he was arrested for a relatively minor offence — driving his all-terrain vehicle on city streets, which is illegal in South Fulton.

Parks had a steady job, and he and his girlfriend were expecting a baby.

His criminal record meant the minor offence could see him spend a month or more in jail, meaning he'd miss the birth of his son. 

In court that day in July, Parks was resigned to that outcome, but something had changed in Georgia. The new city of South Fulton was doing justice differently.

Justin Parks at his home in South Fulton. Parks is a former gang member who has turned his life around. (Peter Mitton/CBC)

A new approach to justice

In July, a photograph of eight black women standing in a courtroom spread widely online.

They were the leaders of South Fulton's new criminal justice system. In a U.S. first, the top roles, from the chief judge to the prosecutor to the public defender, the court staff and even the chief of police, were all occupied by black women.

"This was something that happened organically, but it's a wonderful thing," Chief Judge Tiffany Sellers told local news station WSB-TV at the time.

Sellers and her colleagues had their work cut out for them.

Judge Tiffany Sellers said that people in the legal system need to bring a diversity of perspectives. (Reginald Duncan/Cranium Creation)

According to the Prison Policy Initiative think tank, Georgia has the second highest rate of jail incarceration in the U.S. It leads the country for the number of people in supervision, which includes prison, jail, parole and probation. In all those categories, young black men are far and away the largest group.

LaDawn Jones, the city's prosecutor, said that despite the challenges, "the biggest benefit of being a new city is that you get to start from scratch."

Under new measures, all defendants were represented at first appearance by a public defender. In the rest of the U.S., the onus is on the defendant to prove they can't afford a private lawyer.

A weekly evening court was convened, where people who missed earlier court appearances could show up — even unannounced — to have their cases heard. Elsewhere, missing a court date would mean facing a fine or an arrest warrant.

They set aside a budget to manage a diversion program, allowing offenders to make amends through rehabilitation, rather than conviction.

LaDawn Jones, the city's prosecutor, said it would have been 'disastrous' for Parks to lose his job. (Reginald Duncan/Cranium Creations)

Above all, Sellers said being able to bring "our own principles and our backgrounds" to the courtroom helped them to help defendants.

"You have to have judges, you have to have court administrators, you have to have prosecutors, you have to have public defenders that look like me," she said.

"If everybody looks one way, or is a white male, how can they appreciate or understand an African-American woman's perspective?"

Parks's day in court

Parks was prepared to plead guilty and hope for the best, knowing he could potentially miss the birth of his son.

Instead, Sellers suggested he speak with Jones, the city's prosecutor.

After a brief discussion, they agreed to put him in the diversion program. He was ordered to pay a fine, and do community service. He was also ordered to attend council meetings in the city to see how laws are made, and why people are bothered by things like ATVs on busy downtown streets.

The agreement kept him out of jail, with no new charges on his criminal record.

Parks was arrested for driving his ATV on city streets. (Peter Mitton/CBC)

"I'm sure he wants to be there for the birth of his child, I'm certain he does not want to be in jail for riding an ATV," said Jones.

She said the fact Parks was already working was a big factor in the decision.

"It would be disastrous for us to make him lose that because he has to spend time in jail," she said, "and then make him go through the process where he tries to get hired, upon being released, somewhere else.

"A brand new conviction on his record ... would have closed the door on him completely."

Parks shows the tattoos he got during his days as gang member. The 28-year-old is now holding down a job and starting a family. (Peter Mitton/CBC)

It was not the result Parks was expecting.

"If it would have been the county over … I would have been in jail," he said, adding that he left feeling that everyone in that courtroom had been trying to help him.

Since The Current visited South Fulton in July, the interim police chief Sheila Rogers was replaced by a black man, ending the city's run as the first-ever U.S. justice system led entirely by black women.

Parks and his girlfriend have had their baby, a little boy they've named Jusiah.

"He's doing good, he came two weeks early so he was a little small, but he's getting bigger," Parks said.

"That's really what I'm looking forward to: raising him in the right way, in a different way from what I was raised, so that's about the best thing for me right now."

Listen to the documentary, Georgia Grace, near the top of this page.

Written and produced by Peter Mitton.


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