Puerto Ricans Win Right to Transfer Their Driver’s Licenses in Georgia

Kenneth Cabán Gonzalez, a U.S. citizen born and raised in Puerto Rico, can finally transfer his Puerto Rican driver’s license to Georgia without having to undergo exams not required of U.S. citizens born on the mainland. As a result of the lawsuit – filed on behalf of Mr. Cabán Gonzalez and other similarly situated Puerto Ricans residing in Georgia — the Georgia Department of Driver Services has introduced a series of reforms that will allow Puerto Ricans in Georgia to transfer their driver’s licenses. DDS will also cease administering a so-called “Puerto Rico Interview Guide” which tested U.S. citizens born in Puerto Rico on various statistics and facts to prove themselves Puerto Rican. 

Kenneth Caban Gonzalez, his family, and two of his attorneys (Atteeyah Hollie and Kira Romero-Craft) pose with his new driver’s license.

In October 2017, when Mr. Cabán Gonzalez visited the Georgia DDS office in Hinesville to obtain a Georgia driver’s license, DDS officials withheld his driver’s license, social security card, and birth certificate and initiated an investigation against him for allegedly submitting false identity documents. Days later, DDS officials arrested Mr. Cabán Gonzalez, held him in jail for three days and charged him with fraud and forgery felonies which remained pending until March 2019, when the charges were finally dropped. During that time, DDS learned that the procedures it used to determine the authenticity of Mr. Cabán Gonzalez’s documents were outdated, and the Department of Homeland Security’s lab analysis verified that Mr. Cabán Gonzalez’s identity documents were genuine. Despite these developments, DDS did not return his license, birth certificate, or social security card, nor was he issued a Georgia driver’s license. DDS emails later revealed that several individuals, including high ranking officials, knew for months that Mr. Cabán Gonzalez’s identity documents had been authenticated, yet they failed to act on the information. DDS later fired or demoted those officials. 

Today’s legal victory is the result of class action litigation filed by LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the Southern Center for Human Rights. The reforms being enacted will finally afford Puerto Ricans the same privileges as other U.S. Citizens in Georgia: the ability to obtain a driver’s license, to drive to work, vote, and carry out countless other necessary tasks, while also ensuring their constitutional rights are no longer being violated.

Prior to the lawsuit, Georgia DDS required Puerto Ricans to undergo extra driver testing, and forced Puerto Rican-born applicants to answer questions about the island. They would be asked to answer trick questions like the name of an inland city’s non-existent beach, the name of a frog indigenous to Puerto Rico, or what a meat filled with plantain fritter is called.

“We appreciate DDS’ efforts to end discriminatory policies that treated Puerto Rican applicants like second-class citizens. We trust that these reforms will bring relief and hope to Georgia’s growing Puerto Rican community,” said Atteeyah Hollie, Senior Attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights.  

“I am excited that I can finally transfer my driver’s license from Puerto Rico to Georgia. I am forever thankful to my family for supporting me and helping me get to and from work while I was waiting for a decision in this case. I am eager to complete this chapter in my life and be able to give back to the family who has given me so much,” Mr. Cabán Gonzalez said.

Hours Before Scheduled Execution, Jimmy Meders is Granted Clemency

We are overjoyed that at 1:00 pm yesterday, a mere 6 hours before he was scheduled to be executed, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles granted clemency to our client, Jimmy Meders, converting his death sentence to life without the possibility of parole.

“Words cannot adequately convey our relief and gratitude for this reprieve for our client and friend,” said SCHR Executive Director Sara Totonchi. “As we celebrate Jimmy’s life, we also honor the life of Don Anderson, and his family, who have mourned him for the last thirty years.”

In the words of Mr. Meders’s attorney, Mike Admirand: “We are deeply grateful for the Board’s decision to commute Jimmy Meders’s death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The board’s critically important role in showing mercy in these rare circumstances cannot be overstated. By taking this action, this parole board has made real the intent of the jury to sentence Jimmy to life without parole, and not death. “

Senate Study Committee on Revising Voting Rights Recommends No Changes to Current Law

This year, a bipartisan group of state senators convened to form the Senate Study Committee on Revising Voting Rights for Nonviolent Felony Offenders (the Study Committee).  The Study Committee’s purpose was to potentially define which felonies would not result in disenfranchisement, expanding voting rights to people convicted of crimes like drug possession and theft.

Some background: Georgia’s Constitution bans anyone from voting who is completing a sentence for a felony involving moral turpitude (completing a sentence means the person is either incarcerated or supervised on probation or parole). Since the state has not created a list of crimes defined as those involving “moral turpitude,” in practice, every person currently serving a felony sentence in Georgia is denied the right to vote. In addition to correctional control, outstanding fines, fees and other financial obligations prevent sentence completion, meaning that these debts are essentially modern-day poll taxes that keep otherwise eligible Georgians from voting.  Senate Resolution 153, which created the Study Committee, noted that states with similar disenfranchisement laws are now working to define what constitutes moral turpitude for the purpose of re-enfranchising some people.

The Study Committee met three times, and heard hours of testimony about the history of felony disenfranchisement in Georgia, the racial and economic disparities, the lack of clarity about the term ‘moral turpitude’ and how debt is used to deny voting rights. The Study committee heard from various stakeholders, including people disenfranchised because of a felony, crime survivors, local and national advocacy organizations and students. Despite the recommendations and guidance they received, the Study Committee decided that it was impossible for the committee to define moral turpitude. (In 2017, lawmakers in the state of Alabama were able to define moral turpitude, by passing HB 282, which narrowed the list of disenfranchising felonies down to 47, expanding voting rights to thousands.)

Yesterday, in a vote of 3-2, the Study Committee recommended that the current disenfranchisement law remain intact in Georgia, and that all people completing sentences for felony convictions remain unable to vote.

“The decision by the study committee yesterday was extremely disappointing,” said Marissa McCall Dodson,SCHR’s Public Policy Director. “After hearing hours of thoughtful, researched and impassioned testimony about the problems with the current felony disenfranchisement laws, it is unbelievable that the committee chose to continue with the status quo.”

“We will remain vigilant in our advocacy for the restoration of voting rights for people convicted of a felony in Georgia,” said Sara Totonchi, Executive Director of SCHR. “All Georgians benefit when people formerly disenfranchised can vote for the people and policies that impact their families and communities.”

Southern Center for Human Rights Sends Warning Letter to City of Clarkston Regarding Unlawful Practices in the Clarkston Municipal Court

On Friday, attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights sent a letter to Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, Clarkston City Attorney Stephen Quinn, and Clarkston Municipal Court Judge David C. Will, calling for the Clarkston Municipal Court to cease unlawful practices impacting the city’s predominantly refugee population. The Court’s practices, which are longstanding, clearly violate the rights of people who appear before the Court, as well as the United States Constitution, Georgia Constitution, Georgia Code, and Uniform Municipal Court Rules.

Imposition of Illegal Pay-or-Jail Sentences

Pay-or-jail sentences are those in which the Court requires people either to pay a set dollar amount or, if they are unable to pay, to be jailed.  Courts have long declared these sentences illegal because they subject indigent people to incarceration for no other reason than their poverty.  Despite this precedent, the Clarkston Municipal Court regularly imposes pay-or-jail sentences.  Since June of 2018, SCHR has witnessed multiple instances in which the Court has imposed pay-or-jail sentences almost exclusively on homeless or indigent individuals.  For instance, the court sentenced B.S., a homeless man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who allegedly failed to make probation payments and report to his probation officer, to either pay $1,500 or serve 60 days in jail   Because he could not afford to pay $1,500, B.S. served 45 days in jail.

“The City of Clarkston has an obligation to protect the rights of all its residents, regardless of the size of their bank account or their country of origin,” said Ebony Brown, attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Unfortunately, the practices laid out in this letter disproportionately affect and penalize Clarkston’s large immigrant population.”

Failure to Provide Adequate Interpreter Services for non-English Speaking Defendants in Court

Clarkston has welcomed 40,000 refugees over the past 25 years.  In order to ensure that all people who interact with the criminal legal system can both understand and meaningfully participate in the legal process, municipal courts are required by law to provide interpreters and other language services to any defendant who has limited English proficiency.  Clarkston Municipal Court regularly fails to comply with Georgia law.  SCHR has repeatedly witnessed the Court allow uncertified individuals, such as family members or indiscriminate courtroom witnesses, to interpret the proceedings for them.  In other instances, the court has deprived limited English-speaking defendants of interpreter services entirely. 

On October 3, 2018, K.A., a 27-year-old West African student whose primary languages are Ewe and French, appeared before the Court for trial.  During K.A.’s trial, the public defender explicitly told the Court that he could not understand K.A.  At one point, the public defender asked the Court if K.A. could cross examine a witness himself because he could not understand K.A. The Court also struggled to communicate with K.A.  Yet the Court did not make a language proficiency determination and did not require the use of an interpreter during K.A.’s trial.  Instead, the Court proceeded with the trial, found K.A. guilty, and sentenced him to 6 months in jail.  K.A. served the entire 6-month sentence before his release on March 31, 2019.

“In court, a small misunderstanding or mistranslation can have life-altering implications,” said Atteeyah Hollie, a Senior Attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “It’s critically important that Clarkston Municipal Court provide certified and registered interpreters who are fluent in languages widely spoken in Clarkston.”

The letter also raises concerns about the Court’s routine failure to inquire into defendants’ ability to pay before imposing financial obligations at sentencing and unlawfully ordering the DeKalb County Jail to withhold defendants’ ‘good time’ credits.

The letter asks the City to respond by December 13, 2019, with plans to bring the Court into constitutional and statutory compliance.

Read the letter here.

Georgia Must Test the DNA Evidence in Imminent Scheduled Execution

In just two days, on Wednesday, November 13th, Georgia state officials have scheduled an execution despite the fact that they have no idea who actually committed the crime that triggered the death sentence.  

The state plans to kill Ray “Jeff” Jefferson Cromartie despite the fact that he has never wavered in maintaining his innocence of the crime for which he was sentenced to death; despite the fact that no court has heard new evidence of his innocence; despite the fact that the state refuses to test the extensive available evidence that could prove his innocence through DNA testing; despite the victims’ daughter repeatedly pleading for the state to test the DNA; despite his co-defendant’s brand new affidavit that Mr. Cromartie didn’t pull the trigger. (Mr. Cromartie’s execution had initially been set for October 30th, though it was temporarily stayed by the Georgia Supreme Court on a technical issue.)

Mr. Cromartie was convicted and sentenced to death in 1997 for the 1994 shooting death of convenience store clerk Richard Slysz in tragic fatal shooting that occurred during a botched robbery. Mr. Cromartie has never wavered in maintaining he did not short Mr. Slysz — even turning down a deal that would have seen him become parole eligible after 7 years if he pled guilty. The state didn’t test any of the evidence before Mr. Cromartie’s 1997 trial, and today – decades later – they are continuing to spend Georgia taxpayer dollars litigating in order to avoid having to turn over the DNA so that Mr. Cromartie’s attorneys can have it tested.  

Late last Friday, attorneys for Mr. Cromartie filed a new motion presenting new, reliable evidence of Mr. Cromartie’s innocence. The new filing contains an affidavit from Mr. Cromartie’s co-defendant and half-brother, Thaddeus Lucas, giving never-before-heard evidence that he heard another man, Corey Clarke, admit to being the  actual shooter who killed Mr. Slysz during the crime.  The State’s reliance on Mr. Clarke’s testimony is unsurprising – they had a weak case against Mr. Cromartie overall. No physical evidence shows that Mr. Cromartie shot the victim, or even touched the gun. Mr. Clarke had a clear motive to lie to investigators: in order to convince them that he was not the shooter, he had to convince them that Mr. Cromartie was. Mr. Clarke was paroled in 2005, and remains free today.

The new disclosure of a confession from Mr. Clarke is an extraordinary development. We at the Southern Center oppose all executions, but it would a horrific miscarriage of justice to execute Mr. Cromartie without full consideration of all the facts in his case, including the new evidence of his innocence.

Legal advocates, members of the Thomas County community, and even the victim’s daughter have pleaded with the state to test the DNA before any execution is carried out. “DNA testing will provide a reliable answer to the question of whether Mr. Cromartie was the shooter in Mr. Slysz’s tragic death,” Mr. Cromartie’s attorney Shawn Nolan said in a statement. Richard Slysz’s daughter, Elizabeth Legette, has implored both the Attorney General’s Office and the Georgia Board of Pardons & Parole to conduct the DNA testing before executing a potentially innocent man in the name of “justice” for her father. In a letter sent to the Georgia Supreme Court in October, Ms. Legette writes:

“I am writing to urge you to require DNA testing of the evidence in the case of Ray Cromartie, currently a death row inmate in Georgia. My father, Richard Slysz, was the victim in Mr. Cromartie’s case, and I consider myself a victim under Georgia’s victims’ rights statute and Constitution.

I have read a lot about the case and I believe that there are serious questions about what actually happened the night my father was murdered and whether Ray Cromartie actually killed him. This past summer, I contacted the prosecutors in the case and told them that I wanted DNA testing conducted…They never responded to me, but I understand that they opposed the testing. I still want DNA testing to occur. Today I learned that the State has set a date to execute Mr. Cromartie without doing any testing. This is wrong, and I hope that you will take action to make sure that the testing happens.”

There is extensive, intact evidence – ready to be tested – that the State argued was worn by or handled by the shooter. Why won’t Georgia agree to use modern DNA testing, not available at the time of the crime and trial, to find out who the shooter was? It is the only way to avoid executing a potentially innocent man.

Filmmaker Scott Budnick; New Hampshire Representative Robert Reynolds ‘Renny’ Cushing to be Honored by the Southern Center for Human Rights

On Thursday, November 7th, the Southern Center for Human Rights will host its 23rd Annual Frederick Douglass Awards Dinner in Washington, DC.

SCHR will honor Scott Budnick, film producer and founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a non-profit organization that provides a support network for the formerly incarcerated, with its Human Rights Award. Mr. Budnick is currently serving as President and CEO of his newly-formed company, One Community, LLC. This venture uniquely merges Mr. Budnick’s background in storytelling and impact, as a film and TV production company that plans to leverage the movies and shows it makes to effect positive social change. Mr. Budnick is the producer of Just Mercy; the forthcoming film about Bryan Stevenson, New York Times best-selling author and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

SCHR will honor Representative Renny Cushing, a multi-term member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives and the founder and Executive Director of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), with its Equal Justice Award. Representative Cushing’s father’s murder in 1988 has shaped his work as an advocate for crime victims and as an opponent of capital punishment. As a victim-abolitionist Representative Cushing has been a pioneer in the effort to bridge death penalty abolition groups and the victims’ rights movement. He travels throughout the U.S. and the world speaking with and on behalf of victims who oppose capital punishment and was an integral part of the successful movement to end the death penalty in New Hampshire.

As recipients oftheFrederick Douglass Awards, Mr. Budnick and Representative Cushingjoin a prestigious group of organizations and individuals whom SCHR has previously honored for their leadership in the fight for human rights and equal justice in the criminal justice system. Past honorees include Senator Cory Booker, Bryan Stevenson, Congressman John Lewis and Reverend Joseph Lowery.

“SCHR’s fierce advocacy for human rights and a criminal justice system that works for everyone is inspiring,” said Representative Cushing. “It is humbling to be recognized for my work to end the death penalty by such an amazing group whose members are on the front lines fighting every day to thwart efforts of the government to kill prisoners.” 

“As someone born and raised in Atlanta, it is inspiring to be honored amongst these incredible individuals, and to celebrate an organization holding systems accountable and fighting for justice and the humanity of people imprisoned in the South,” said Mr. Budnick. “Our work in the prisons of California was birthed and inspired by the Southern Center’s relentless advocacy and passion for those that are underserved and marginalized.”

Since 1976, the Southern Center for Human Rights has been working for equality, justice, and dignity for people impacted by the criminal legal system in the Deep South. SCHR fights for a world free from mass incarceration, the death penalty, the criminalization of poverty, and racial injustice.

SCHR has won five death penalty cases before the United States Supreme Court, represented thousands of people in class action lawsuits challenging unconstitutional and inhumane criminal justice practices, and worked towards ending the criminalization of poverty.

The Frederick Douglass Awards Dinner is SCHR’s principal annual fundraising event. SCHR is grateful to presenting sponsor Morrison & Foerster LLP, Kilpatrick Townsend, and The Zitrin Foundation. The dinner will be held at Conrad Washington DC Hotel, 950 New York Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20001. A cocktail reception begins at 6:00 pm, with dinner and remarks commencing at 7:00 pm.

Members of the press are encouraged to attend this event. Please RSVP no later than November 6th by contacting Terrica Ganzy, at 404-688-1202 or [email protected].

‘What we call goals are human rights’: an interview with Close the Jail ATL’s Marilynn Winn

Ms. Winn in front of the Atlanta City Detention Center

The Atlanta City Detention Center (or ACDC) has historically served as a place to warehouse immigrants and the poor. It was erected just prior to the city of Atlanta serving as host for the 1996 Olympic Games. Beforehand – and for the duration of – the Olympics, ACDC’s population shot up from 2,200 to 4,500; at the same time, many homeless (or visibly poor) men and women disappeared from Woodruff Park. The jail is a monument to the criminalization of poverty; it is a monument to the practice of policing for comfort. Or it was: now, thanks to a successful moonshot campaign waged by a coalition of formerly incarcerated women of color, the city jail is closing. A city-appointed task force plans to repurpose the jail as a “Center for Equity.” In the space that used to cage poor Atlantans, people will now find resources, opportunities, and community.

The nonprofit organization behind the successful ‘Close the Jail ATL’ campaign, Women on the Rise, was founded and is led by Marilynn Winn. Winn says her mission to close the jail has been years in the making. “I didn’t like to talk about it, because when I brought it up people would tell me, ‘It’s not gonna happen. You’re crazy.’ But in my heart and in my spirit I always knew it would happen,” Winn told the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR).

When Winn created Women on the Rise (WoR), she joined forces with Xochitl Bervera of the Racial Justice Action Center (RJAC) who helped Winn put her vision of working with formerly incarcerated women to change policy into action. The women of WoR speak directly and powerfully to the issues of incarceration in a way that few others can. 

“Every time we won a campaign… we fought and we fought until we got it. It’s all about who’s giving the presentation. A person who has not been in our shoes can’t be passionate enough about their freedom to deliver that piece,” Winn said. 

Winn grew up in extreme poverty and learned to steal to survive. At 17, she went to prison for shoplifting. It was an ordeal she never wanted to repeat, but she found herself unable to get a job without lying about her record. Each time information about her past incarceration surfaced, she was fired, throwing her back into survival mode. Finally, facing a seventh prison sentence, Winn told a judge she needed something different.

“You keep sending me to prison, and it’s not going to work,” she told Judge Walter Lovett. “I’m going to come back and steal some more because I don’t have a choice in the matter.” Winn explained that she’d lied to obtain 18 separate jobs she couldn’t keep, showing the judge her social security documents to prove it. He told her to have a seat while he proceeded with the rest of his court calendar. At the end of the day, she and her attorney were alone with the judge and the prosecutor.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to send you back to prison. I do understand what you’re saying, but I don’t have anything to offer you. You’re not a drug addict.’”

Winn had become addicted to drugs during her fourth stint in prison, but she’d been clean and sober for a long time on that day in Judge Lovett’s courtroom. She convinced him that she could still be an addict, and he agreed to send her to drug court. There, she was able to obtain employment at a staffing company. Winn took the initiative to learn everything she could about the job, and now serves on the board of directors for First Step Staffing. Speaking up that day in court, Winn found a voice for herself and for her community.

Winn believes that the people most impacted by a problem are often the ones best suited to find a solution. “Those closest to the problem are the ones… to solve those problems. I’m no different. l still face those barriers and that’s why I fight them so hard. Even though I got a pardon, if a police officer should pull up my name, he would see my record before he sees my work. I’m still that person they would call a convict, who has been in prison. I’m still her.”

Close the Jail ATL was the latest in a series of successful community-led campaigns for decarceral solutions in Atlanta, including Ban the Box, decriminalizing marijuana possession, municipal cash bail reform, and the history-making Pre-Arrest Diversion (PAD) initiative.

“I was really excited… because stuff was happening that we’d never heard of, here in Atlanta, in the South, with a Republican governor. That let me know that the city was open to a number of things that it had never been open to before,” Winn said.

Things were happening, but the jail still loomed over the city, housing increasingly smaller numbers of people arrested for offenses as minor as a broken taillight. WoR and RJAC allied with 48 other groups, advocating at town halls and city council meetings and connecting with the city’s most impacted citizens. Resistance, Winn said, came from people in the community whose fears about public safety stood in the way of their understanding the alliance’s mission to close the jail. 

“Of course we got pushback… It’s all about educating people,” Winn said. “For example, I had to speak at a downtown neighborhood association, and they were stone faced. Literally most everybody that’s living in those areas are white, and they want to know about people that’s coming out that’s breaking in their cars. I let them know first of all that I am formerly incarcerated and I had that same problem until I got the services I need. You can scream, “Put people in jail,’ but they are not dying in the jail. They’re coming back out. And they are coming back out worse than what they went in. Some people went in with family support, some people went in with somewhere to live, coming back out with nothing… Coming out fiercer to commit a crime than they were… because they did have a little something but coming out now to nothing and nowhere to go. Wouldn’t it be easier and simpler to put your tax dollars into services for these folks than to lock them up? Because once they get what they need, then they will not do what they do.”

When speaking to communities comprised of people with experiences wildly different than her own, Winn stresses the personal nature of her fight against carceral injustice. For her, it’s critical to show others who have been targeted and impacted by the criminal legal system that a formerly incarcerated woman is breaking barriers and opening minds in order to create sustainable solutions.

“It’s just a few of us who have managed to overcome the stigma and the barriers that has been placed up to keep us held hostage. But mostly I think we are held hostage in our mind because we don’t want to talk about it. I think talking about it and being able to bring it forefront is the best thing we can do,” Winn said.

Now that ACDC is slated to close, a task force is meeting to discuss plans for the building’s future incarnation. After Mayor Bottoms signed the resolution in May, the task force was given nine months to take recommendations from the community and to find new jobs for the jail’s staff. Winn, one of the Task Force’s Co-chairs, says she envisions a welcoming space that is functional, practical and beautiful: one that will invite people in and make them feel safe; where they can connect with a variety of holistic services.

Winn’s vision, in her words: “I’m looking for a one stop shop, the same place that once housed and harmed our folks, a big beautiful opening, lots of windows, flowers, rooftop garden, outside to attract people’s attention to be curious, and so welcoming. Resource centers, housing, healthcare, addiction, employment development and training, 24-hour childcare. Nonprofits doing the work that we do, paying rent to the city to implement these programs. Education, hands on training… Whatever it takes for a person to thrive. Change the expression on their face. That’s what I see for that building. That’s not a goal it’s a right. What we call goals are human rights. It’s what we’re supposed to have already.”

The Task Force to reimagine the use of the Atlanta City Detention Center includes Winn, Atlanta rapper T.I. and SCHR’s Tiffany Williams Roberts. The task force is made up of 25 community members, some of whom were formerly detained at the jail. Stay tuned for ongoing coverage of the Reimagining the ACDC Task Force’s first phase meetings and town halls.

To learn more about the Task Force, visit https://www.closethejailatl.org/.   

Eleventh Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Lawsuit Challenging Policies Unlawfully Restricting Access to Basic Utility Services

In May 2017, the Southern Center for Human Rights, along with the National Immigration Law Center and Relman, Dane, & Colfax filed a lawsuit against the city of LaGrange, Georgia, alleging that the city’s discriminatory utility policies violated the Fair Housing Act. In December 2017, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, accepting the city’s claim that because its citizens had acquired housing, they were no longer protected. Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the decision to dismiss, allowing the lawsuit to proceed.

“The Court’s order could not have been more clear – housing discrimination is unlawful regardless of whether it occurs before or after someone moves into their home,” said SCHR Senior Attorney Atteeyah Hollie. “This is a win for everyone committed to achieving fair housing practices in Georgia and beyond.” 

The city of LaGrange is the sole provider of electricity, gas, and water utility services. Unlike most municipalities in the country, LaGrange does not levy property taxes—a policy decision that the city routinely touts to recruit new employers and residents. Instead, municipal operations are largely funded through the city’s sale of basic utilities to its residents.

The city requires that utility customers comply with two policies in order to initiate and maintain those basic utility services: first, both applicants and current customers must pay any debts they owe to the city, including unrelated municipal court fees and fines, to maintain their utilities. Residents with municipal court debt cannot obtain electricity, gas, or water, and current customers who owe court debt to the city may have their utilities turned off, sometimes with little advance notice. Second, the city requires an applicant seeking to open a new utility account to present a valid state-or federally-issued photo ID, which many Latinx residents in LaGrange are categorically ineligible to obtain.

The disproportionate impact of these policies on Black and Latinx communities is clear: 90% of the residents subjected to the court debt policy were Black (LaGrange’s population is only 48% Black) and Latinx immigrants are overwhelmingly impacted by the city’s policy of requiring photo identification in order to obtain utilities.

The policy of adding unrelated fees to utility bills represents a huge disadvantage to low-income residents, whose bills are already a larger burden relative to their overall income. Seven LaGrange residents are listed as plaintiffs in the suit, including Pamela Williams, a property owner who discounted rents for several tenants who could not afford to keep the lights on.  One such tenant was Calvin Johnson, a 37-year-old lifelong LaGrange resident. When he moved into a trailer owned by Williams’ mother, he was surprised to find that he owed the city money for outstanding court fines. He was confused, he told Rewire in 2017, because he had served jail time for the charge in 2003 and hadn’t realized he still owed hundreds of dollars, until the charges showed up in an unlikely place: his water and electricity bills.

Even though Johnson worked two jobs, he said he still didn’t know how he was going to make it. He’d worked out a payment plan with the city, but he still couldn’t afford to pay the fines, his bills, and his rent, which his landlord discounted for a few months to let him catch up. Johnson eventually left LaGrange and moved in with family. He joined the lawsuit in hopes it might change life in LaGrange for other residents struggling to keep the lights on.

“They need to change that law,” Johnson told Rewire. “It hurts a lot of people, especially when people are living from paycheck to paycheck… They know that you got to have lights, you got to have water, that’s why they add it onto people’s utility bills. I think it’s very wrong.”

The second policy listed in the suit, which requires that residents opening utilities accounts produce a state-issued photo ID, amounts to a complete deterrent for immigrants who are blocked from obtaining an account in their own name.

One anonymous plaintiff, referred to in the lawsuit as John Doe #3, moved to the United States with his young son and wife, who has a medical condition that requires dialysis — and consistent water and electricity. When she became pregnant again, they tried to move to a bigger home, but he was unable to open a utility account in their name with his Mexican passport or tax ID. He had to have a friend with a social security number and state-issued ID put the bills in his name. 

These policies amount to utilities as a form of social control. While the city attracts businesses with the freedom from property taxes, it in turn further disenfranchises its most marginalized residents. In LaGrange’s Municipal Court, a fine from a traffic violation could lead to probation and more fines, and eventually to the lights and the water being shut off.

This is exactly what happened to Charles Brewer, a named plaintiff who passed away in August 2018. Brewer, 57 at the time of his death, suffered from serious sleep apnea and congestive heart failure, and was on a waiting list for a heart transplant. In 2014, Brewer was placed on probation after he pleaded no contest to driving without a license. He was ordered to pay a total of $871 in fines and fees relating to his arrest, most of which he had paid off when his probation ended. In October of 2015, the remaining debt of $210.25 was transferred to the city’s collection agency. When Brewer moved the next year, he applied for utilities and was obligated to sign a statement which read: “Applicants with delinquent amounts owed to the City of any type shall be subject to having utility services terminated for failure to pay said debts.” Five months later, Brewer received a letter from the City, warning him that his utilities would be cut off if his court debt – which was accruing interest each month – was not paid. Both Brewer’s oxygen tank and CPAP machine required electricity to run. Terrified at the prospect of losing these life-sustaining machines, he explained his situation to the City, who claimed to have added a “medical no-cut” notation to his file. Despite this, Brewer continued to receive threats of service interruption, and lived in fear that the two hundred dollars he owed from his traffic violation would cost him his life.

Ernest Ward, former President of the Troup County NAACP, told Rewire that the court debt and utility account policies are “an extension of institutional racism—another way the city keeps its Black and brown residents in line.”

“We are truly excited about the decision handed down yesterday,” said Ward in a statement last week. “It was huge for our disenfranchised community members, who are continually impacted by the barriers associated with poverty. We have a reason to be excited, but at the same time, we have a reason to be sad. Sad because lawsuits do not change the heart of a person, and we desire a time in our community when one doesn’t have to litigate equality.”

A Quarterly Update from the SCHR Ambassadors

SCHR In the News

  • Earlier this week, SCHR and co-counsel at the Georgia Innocence Project argued in front of the Supreme Court of Georgia that a Superior Court ruling that granted SCHR client Johnny Lee Gates a new trial should stand. Earlier this year, Judge Allen granted Mr. Gates a new trial based on new, exculpatory DNA evidence. Judge Allen also found “undeniable” and “overwhelming” evidence of race discrimination on the part of the prosecution. Read more here.


  • Also this week, SCHR attorneys Atteeyah Hollie and Patrick Mulvaney secured the freedom of SCHR client Lee Teasley. Mr. Teasley had been arrested for possessing six grams of cocaine with intent to distribute in Whitfield County, Georgia, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Thanks to SCHR, the District Attorney agreed to resentence Mr. Teasley to time served with no probation, and after 27 years of incarceration, Mr. Teasley walked out of prison a free man, into the loving embrace of his family.


  • A federal judge last month ordered Fulton County to take immediate steps to improve the treatment of mentally ill women being held in a jail annex in Union City. U.S. District Court Judge Billy Ray granted a preliminary injunction for women who have been held for prolonged periods in solitary confinement and in filthy conditions at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail. Lawyers for SCHR and the Georgia Advocacy Office asked Judge Ray to require that the roughly 30 to 40 mentally ill women at the jail be allowed to leave their cells for up to four hours a day at least five days a week. Judge Ray ordered the jail to grant that request within 30 days, with exceptions for those inmates posing “an immediate and substantial risk” of harming someone else. Ray also gave the county 30 days to present a plan that ensures an appropriate environment for the female inmates. The plan must include steps that help the women maintain their hygiene, live in a clean and safe environment, and be allowed out-of-cell group activities. SCHR lawyer Sarah Geraghty said she was very pleased with Ray’s decision. Read more here.


  • In Ambassador news, you may recall that one of SCHR’s former clients, Christopher Williams, was released from prison after serving 19 years of a life sentence for stealing $26 as an unarmed accomplice in a robbery where no one was injured. After his release, he struggled to get his driver’s license because of insurmountable debt. The Ambassadors took it upon themselves to fundraise on Mr. Williams’s behalf, and we raised the full $1200 he needed to pay off all of his debt and truly get a new start!


Click here for more SCHR news.


Upcoming Events

Please join us in supporting SCHR at these upcoming events:

2019 Decriminalizing Race & Poverty Symposium, Wednesday, September 11, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM

Where: Georgia State University College of Law, 85 Park Place NE, Atlanta, GA 30303

**There will be an Ambassadors Happy Hour immediately following the event at 6:00 PM.
Register here

23rd Annual Frederick Douglass Awards Dinner, Thursday, November 7, 7:00 PM

Where: Conrad Washington DC Hotel, 916 Joseph E. Lowery Blvd. NW, Atlanta, GA 30318

Register here

Ambassador Profile: Keenan Yates

What’s your name? 

Keenan Yates

Where do you work, and what do you do? 

I work at Habitat for Humanity International in downtown Atlanta. I serve as the Manager of Lending Resources, where I support Habitat’s efforts to attract and deploy private capital to increase the production and preservation of affordable housing across the U.S.  For those who are familiar with or have ever volunteered with a local Habitat affiliate, I basically help them secure some of the financing that allows them to build and sell affordable housing.

Where did you grow up?  

Born and raised in St. Louis, MO…shout out to the Midwest!

What’s your favorite Atlanta neighborhood?  

That’s easy – my own neighborhood of Old Fourth Ward. It has all of the amenities I could ask for, plus it’s near my job in Downtown (also one of my favorites). I pretty much spend 70 to 80 percent of my time within a 3 mile radius of O4W. I also have a great deal of admiration for the West End neighborhood – its history, resilience, potential, and the Atlanta University Center.

How long have you been involved with the SCHR Ambassadors?  

Oh wow – since the inception, back in early 2017, and it has been a great experience.

What inspired you to get involved with the Southern Center?  

Having never worked in the legal or criminal justice field, I was completely unaware of the Southern Center until being invited to join the newly formed Ambassadors. Upon being introduced to SCHR and learning about the cases they work on, I was immediately inspired and impressed. Two and a half years of being involved, and I am continually inspired.

What’s been your favorite Southern Center/Ambassadors event from the last year?  

I’m going to cheat and name a few for different reasons.

Favorite Live-Stream Event: 2018 Decriminalizing Race & Poverty Symposium – I wasn’t able to attend in person, but I live streamed a good bit of it. It was an engaging conversation around combating the criminalization of race and poverty and its adverse effects. It also featured a tremendous panel and keynote speaker.

Favorite Working Group: Pillars of Justice Letter Writing Event – A small group of Ambassadors handwrote thank you letters to SCHR contributors. It was great to see how many people, near and far, support the Southern Center and its work.

Favorite Crowdfunding Campaign: Southern Center Re-entry Fund – We raised $1,200 to help a former SCHR client financially re-adjust to the outside, after serving 19 years of a life sentence for stealing $26 as an unarmed accomplice to a gas station robbery where no one was injured.

Favorite Event Overall: No Laughing Matter at Monday Night Brewing Garage – I thought it was an awesome way to highlight and blend the heavy topic of criminal justice with something as “digestible” as comedy and beer.

As an Ambassador, There’s No Shortage of Ways to Contribute to the Southern Center

  • Join the Pillars of Justice Society with a recurring monthly donation to SCHR. This is a great way to fulfill your Ambassador pledge of $250 per year.
  • Make SCHR your AmazonSmile recipient, so they receive a portion of every purchase you make on Amazon (it adds up!)
  • While you’re on Amazon, purchase items for newly released SCHR clients.
  • Host a Facebook fundraiser for your birthday to benefit SCHR.
  • Let us know if you or your employer might have space SCHR could use for events.
  • Attend SCHR events! As an Ambassador, you have pledged to attend 2-3 a year. We’d love to see you!
  • Follow the Southern Center and SCHR Ambassadors on social media, repost and like SCHR’s content, and invite your friends to do the same:

Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/southerncenterforhumanrights/ (Southern Center) https://www.facebook.com/SCHRAmbassadors/ (Ambassadors)

Instagram: @thesoutherncenter @schr_ambassadors

Twitter: @southerncenter

We Want to Hear From You

Do you have ideas for future events? Ways we can support the Southern Center and its clients? We’d love to hear from you! If you would like to get more involved with the SCHR Ambassadors and serve on the Leadership Council, please contact [email protected] or [email protected].