SCHR Sends Public Letter to State Regarding the Potential Spread of COVID-19 to People in Georgia Prisons

On March 13, 2010, the Southern Center for Human Rights sent a public letter to the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles (Parole Board) regarding the anticipated spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) to people incarcerated in Georgia prisons. Given the mortality rate associated with the virus, SCHR is deeply concerned about the virus’s spread to at-risk people, particularly the elderly, within the closed confines of a prison setting.

Requests to GDC

We ask the GDC to implement a number of measures to reduce virus transmission and potential loss of life, including, but not limited to the following:

  • Comply with CDC, Georgia Department of Public Health, and NCCHC Guidelines;
  • Eliminate co-pays;
  • Ensure access to soap, tissue, cleaning/sanitizing products, and clean laundry:
  • Ensure transparency in communications with family members and the public;
  • Implement medical quarantine where appropriate;
  • Implement an emergency staffing plan;
  • Create a list of people to prioritize for possible release.

Requests to Parole Board

We ask the Parole Board to take immediate steps to plan for ways to reduce the prison population by some significant percentage – e.g. by 5% or 10% – if required by the circumstances of the pandemic. Specifically, we ask the Parole Board to review, on an expedited basis, the cases of elderly and infirm prisoners, in order to identify who among them could be released, consistent with public safety. In making this request, we note that the Georgia Constitution gives the Parole Board the authority to “parole any person who is age 62 or older.”

You can read the full letter below or by following this link.


Civil Rights Groups Undertake Voter Education for People in Georgia Jails

Yesterday, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Dēmos mailed 1,000 nonpartisan, voter education packets containing know-your-rights documents and absentee ballot applications to people incarcerated in Gwinnett, Glynn, and Randolph County jails. This mailing precedes the March 20, 2020 deadline for requesting an absentee ballot to cast in the presidential primary election.

In 2019, Georgia amended state law to allow eligible, registered voters who are detained in jail to have absentee ballots mailed to the jail. State law had previously prohibited election officials from sending ballots to a jail.

Yesterday’s mailing is part of a larger effort undertaken by SCHR and Dēmos to provide information about these recent changes to Georgia law. Both organizations have been working with local grassroots groups—such as Southerners on New Ground and the NAACP—to disseminate educational materials. They also sent an earlier round of 1,000 voter education guides and absentee ballots to people in the Cobb, Richmond, and Sumter County jails, and plan to send at least 2,000 additional mailings later this year.

“Roughly 40,000 people are held in Georgia jails on any given day—many of whom are detained pretrial and eligible to vote,” said Sarah Geraghty, Managing Attorney at SCHR. “However, people in jails are often unaware that they remain eligible to vote or that there are means available for requesting and casting ballots from jail.”

 “Each individual vote and voice represent a critical contribution to our democracy,” said Chiraag Bains, Director of Legal Strategies at Dēmos. “The recent change in Georgia law and the fact that so many eligible, but incarcerated voters are unaware of their voting rights, fueled the effort to disseminate educational materials this year. We hope these materials help people to determine whether they have the right vote and, if so, to exercise that right in the coming election.”

The materials circulated to individuals incarcerated in jails include:

  • A know-your-rights document that provides information about who is qualified to vote in Georgia and how people in jail can exercise their voting rights;
  • An absentee ballot application; and
  • A hotline number that individuals may call free of charge if they encounter problems voting.

While jail staff may not erect barriers to people’s voting rights, some eligible voters have encountered problems in exercising their voting rights. The hotline allows eligible, jailed voters to report if they are unable to obtain an absentee ballot in a timely way through the jail’s mail system, lack the identification required for first-time voters in a federal election, or don’t have postage to send in their ballot. “We urge Georgia sheriffs to take steps to ensure that eligible voters in their custody are not blocked from exercising the right to vote,” said Sarah Geraghty.

A copy of the know-your-rights document is available here.

SCHR is a nonprofit civil rights law office that represents people in the criminal legal system in the South, and Dēmos is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that works on voting rights and democracy issues.


Justice Day 2020: Focused on the Future

Last Thursday, over 400 attendees from across Georgia gathered at the state capitol for the ninth annual criminal justice advocacy day. Hosted by many partners of the Georgia Justice Reform Partnership (JRP) – a collection of over 50 organizations interested in advancing criminal justice reform in Georgia – Justice Day 2020: Focused on the Future engaged attendees in a discussion about the ways to bring opportunity, dignity, and redemption to those involved in Georgia’s criminal legal systems.

Legislators and members of the JRP opened Justice Day with an overview of the day’s programming. Mazie Lynn Causey, Policy Advocate with Georgia Associate of Criminal Defense Lawyers (GACDL), charged the audience with uplifting and amplifying the voices of those who are most directly impacted by the criminal legal system through the day’s themes: Opportunity, Dignity, Redemption, and Action. Marissa Dodson, Public Policy Director at SCHR, provided an overview of the JRP’s legislative agenda for the 2019-2020 legislative session. Representative Andy Welch talked about the budget cuts Governor Kemp has proposed for criminal justice agencies and encouraged attendees to urge their Senators to leave Georgia’s public defender program budget intact.

The day continued with an array of advocates, legislators, and people directly impacted by Georgia’s criminal legal system who provided diverse commentary on criminal justice reform priority areas. Speakers developed their remarks around the four core themes of the day that Ms. Causey presented and encompassed the stages of the criminal legal system from arrest and initial involvement to reentry. Topics ranged from “crimmigration”—a term coined to describe how criminal-legal and immigration systems interact and deprive people of access to opportunity—to a speech from Tariq Baiyina of Inner-City Muslim Action Network’s Atlanta Chapter (IMAN Atlanta), who used his personal experiences with voting disenfranchisement due to a felony to illuminate the myriad ways that the criminal-legal system continues to deprive people of dignity long after they are under direct correctional control.

Midway through the program attendees shifted their focus away from listening and learning from speakers to the final theme of the day— action. They received a crash course in ways to lobby legislators and those who identified as directly impacted by the criminal-legal system headed over to the Capitol to share their stories and advocate for positive reforms. Other participants chose between activities that deepened their understanding of the themes of Justice Day; including workshops on artistic reflection, storytelling, letter-writing to the children of incarcerated parents, and a virtual reality solitary confinement experience provided by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). Justice Day attendees also donated over 50 Lbs. of bar soap and shampoo to be distributed to the women at Lee Arrendale Prison, and over 140 books and magazines for the library at the Metro Re-Entry Facility in Atlanta.

Over lunch, April LaLand-Sentmanat, founder and CEO Minister of Woman-2-Woman & Associates (W2WA), delivered Justice Day 2020’s keynote speech. Ms. LaLand-Sentmanat described the ways that her own experiences with substance use and domestic violence, absent adequate social services, led to her incarceration and an excessive probationary period. Though the criminal legal system utterly failed to provide her with any of the resources she needed to thrive, Ms. LaLand-Sentmanat provided powerful testimony on the role spirituality, Georgia Justice Project’s legal advocacy, and her own determination and voice played in her recovery. Ms. LaLand-Sentmanat’s work with W2WA now allows her to empower and uplift other women in crisis through W2WA’s workshops, temporary safe housing, and employment assistance, among other services.

Tiffany Roberts, SCHR’s Community Engagement and Movement Building Counsel, closed out Justice Day by presenting the Justice Reform Partnership’s Justice Day 2020 Freedom Fighter Award to Marilynn Winn and Women on the Rise for their work to close the Atlanta City Detention Center. Sharon Turner and Denise Ruben accepted the award on behalf of Ms. Winn, and left Justice Day attendees with an apt sentiment— “When we fight, we win.”

You can watch the live stream from the event below.

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].