SCHR’s Public Policy Director Appointed As Leader of New National Criminal Justice Organization

Marissa Dodson.

Southern Center for Human Rights Public Policy Director Marissa Dodson has been appointed to the Board of Directors of a new national criminal justice organization, the Council on Criminal Justice.

Independent and nonpartisan, the Council is an invitational membership organization and think tank that advances understanding of the criminal justice policy choices facing the nation and builds consensus for solutions that enhance safety and justice for all. The organization believes a fair and effective criminal justice system is essential to democracy and a core measure of our nation’s well-being.

The Council’s advisory Board of Trustees includes U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Mark Holden of Koch Industries, and Van Jones of CNN.

The Council is governed by a 16-member Board of Directors led by Laurie Robinson, who twice served as Assistant Attorney General in charge of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs. The Council was founded by its president and chief executive officer, Adam Gelb, a former journalist, U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee staffer, and director of public safety initiatives at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Marissa and other Directors will advise the Council about which public safety and justice issues it should focus on, help select general Council members, and how the Council can best fulfill its mission and serve its members and the field at large.

Council membership rewards the accomplishments of established leaders and serves to develop a strong, diverse cohort of emerging leaders who will steer the field through future challenges. It also supports a field that is more inclusive of those whose perspectives often are overlooked, such as formerly incarcerated people. Leaders and lifetime members of the Council are selected based on multiple criteria, including intellectual achievement, practical impact, dedication to research-informed policy making, standing among peers, promise of future service to the field, and potential for contributing to the Council’s work.

Georgia Fails to Adhere to Federal Standards for Granting Drivers Licenses to Puerto Ricans

Georgia DDS Retains Government Documents from Puerto Rico, Detains Applicants Presenting the Documents and Fails to Issue Them Driver’s Licenses

Today, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the Southern Center for Human Rights  filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of named-Plaintiff Kenneth Caban Gonzalez, a US citizen born in Puerto Rico, and similarly situated individuals, who are challenging the Georgia Department of Driver’s Services’ (DDS) unlawful and discriminatory treatment of American citizens from Puerto Rico. The lawsuit was filed because DDS seizes identity documents presented by these American citizens and often fails to make a decision on their applications for driver’s licenses. Sometimes, as DDS did with Caban, these citizens are detained and arrested.

The lawsuit alleges that Georgia DDS is disobeying the Constitution by treating these American citizens differently than U.S. mainland-born citizens by not providing them with driver’s licenses and by not giving them a chance for a fair hearing. Further, the lawsuit alleges that Georgia DDS requires Puerto Ricans to undergo extra driver testing, and forces Puerto Rican-born applicants to answer questions about Puerto Rico in order to prove that they are Puerto Rican. They are 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.

“Puerto Ricans who are trying to start a new life in Georgia deserve access to the same benefits that are afforded to other citizens of the United States. We believe that across Georgia there are many Puerto Ricans who face the same kind of intimidation that Kenneth experienced, and we cannot allow for this kind of overt discrimination to take place.” said Jorge Vasquez, Associate Counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

“Puerto Rican Americans are not second-rate citizens and should be treated with the respect afforded every American.  The so-called quiz, applied to Puerto Rican drivers, bears a strikingly disturbing resemblance to the tests applied by segregationists to block voter registration of people of color,” said Gerry Weber, Senior Attorney at SCHR.

It has been over 600 days since Mr. Caban Gonzalez applied for a Georgia driver’s license, yet DDS has not issued him a license, returned his documents or offered an explanation as to why he is not eligible for the license. Not having a license makes it very hard for Mr. Caban Gonzalez to find employment in his field (which requires a valid driver’s license), and makes taking his infant daughter to doctor’s appointment, attending to his own medical needs, grocery shopping, having a social life, and much more nearly impossible. Also, driving without a valid license is a criminal offense in Georgia, carrying a minimum fine of $500 and a year of imprisonment.

DOJ Files Statement of Interest in SCHR Case

A cell at the South Fulton Jail. Photo property of the Georgia Accountability Office.

In April, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), along with the Georgia Advocacy  Office, filed a lawsuit on behalf of a putative class of women with mental illness being held in solitary confinement at the South Fulton Jail in Union City, Georgia. Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in the case – underscoring just how grave the human rights violations at issue are.

The lawsuit, which seeks a court order requiring that women in the jail be held in safe, sanitary conditions, alleges that women who have been identified by jail staff as experiencing mental illness are locked inside their cells for over 23 hours a day on average. Solitary confinement can cause anyone to mentally decompensate, but it is especially harmful for people coping with mental illness.  Women in the South Fulton Jail who are deemed incompetent to stand trial (often for petty offenses) sometimes remain in their squalid cells around the clock for weeks on end, while similarly situated men in the Fulton County system are given access to a competency restoration program within the jail, with on-staff psychiatrists, individual and group therapy, activities, and recreation.

SCHR welcomes the Department of Justice’s Statement of Interest in this case. It is unacceptably cruel and counterproductive to detain people with mental illness in solitary confinement, and it is additionally egregious to condition access to competency restoration services on a person’s gender.

To learn more, Bill Rankin at the Atlanta Journal Constitution on the Statement.

Victorian Asylum or Modern Jail?

By Sara Totonchi, Executive Director

When K.H. was arrested in Atlanta in November of 2018, she was 26 years old, homeless, and experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia. Though she was arrested on charges of criminal trespassing and prowling—both minor offenses that carry little to no jail time—she has been incarcerated in Atlanta’s South Fulton Jail, in solitary confinement, for over 5 months. She has been deemed incompetent to stand trial and is unable to afford her $500 bond. She is stuck on a wait list to be transferred to a hospital.

Women’s rate of incarceration has grown twice as quickly as the rate for men in recent decades, and the growth has been disproportionately located in jails. Fulton is Georgia’s most populous county, and the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office detains more people in its jails than any other sheriff’s office in the state. On any given day, roughly half of all detainees in Fulton County are identified as needing mental health services. The jail is, in effect, the state’s biggest mental health facility, yet it is staffed mostly with people who are neither trained nor remotely prepared to manage people who are experiencing serious mental illness.

When women in the Fulton County Jail system are deemed incompetent to stand trial but capable of being restored to competency, they are placed on a long waiting list for admission to one of the forensic beds at Georgia Regional Hospital–Atlanta, or another state hospital. It’s not unusual for people like K.H. to wait months, or even a year, for a bed. In 2011, recognizing that the wait times for these beds were prohibitively long, Fulton County established a jail-based, 16-bed competency restoration unit at its main jail. Detainees who are admitted to the unit promptly enter a therapeutic environment, with full days of structured programming, counseling, and group activities supervised by on-site psychiatrists and other skilled clinicians. They participate in art therapy and movie nights. The only catch? Under Fulton County’s policies, inexplicably, candidates for the competency restoration program “must be male.”

K.H. is a named plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in April 2019 by the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and the Georgia Advocacy Office on behalf of women with psychiatric disabilities in the jail. The lawsuit, which seeks a court order demanding that women in the South Fulton Jail be held in safe, sanitary conditions, was filed against Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson, Chief Jailer Mark Adger, and other jail officials. The lawsuit alleges that because K.H. has been identified by jail staff as a person experiencing mental illness, she—and others in the same unit of the jail —are locked inside their cells for over 23 hours a day on average. Often, they are left in their isolation cells around the clock for days on end.  Between November 3, 2018, and February 28, 2019, K.H. was allowed in the jail’s outside recreation area only once. To make matters worse, thanks to a perpetually malfunctioning toilet, K.H.’s cell floor is often flooded with standing toilet water. She must either use her sheets and blankets as a sponge, or live with toilet water surrounding her. On the days that she chooses to mop up the water, she is forced to sleep on the metal bed-frame without bedding.

Conditions in the South Fulton Jail’s mental health unit are simply inhumane. Because some women with psychiatric disabilities cannot maintain their personal hygiene, the pods often smell of urine and feces. The building itself is rife with surface mold and rusting metal. Shower mats are covered in scum. In the cells, women can be found lying on the floor; sometimes they smear themselves with feces. Many of the women are unresponsive; some mutter incoherently. With nothing to do all day, many women are curled up in their beds, sleeping, or staring at the wall. Many cells are filthy, with food waste, soiled clothing, and other trash strewn about.

Breakfast is served to the women at about 3 in the morning, through a flap in the cell’s heavy metal doors. They are given four slices of white bread, and some meat believed to be bologna.  Multiple women have complained of food poisoning from rotten bologna.  At a recent visit to the jail, SCHR staff observed a clearly visible spot of blue mold on the meat.  Because of chronic plumbing issues, cells frequently lose all water access. When this happens, the women have access only to what little water they can store in a cup or cereal bowl from the 3:00 a.m. distribution of breakfast trays. Women like K.H. remain caged in these horrific conditions for months on end only because they are too poor to afford their bond, too impacted by their mental illness to resolve their cases, and not deemed eligible to competency restoration services which are offered to similarly situated men.

Solitary confinement can cause anyone to mentally decompensate, but it is particularly harmful for people with psychiatric disabilities. Many women held in South Fulton isolation cells cut themselves, bang their heads against the wall, and even attempt to commit suicide.  The jail is full of women like K.H., whose symptoms could be safely and effectively managed in a therapeutic setting. But in isolated conditions, they deteriorate dramatically. The mental health crises they experience are tragic, predictable, and preventable.

Here is what Fulton County can — and must — do. Eliminate solitary confinement. Ensure that all women at the jail receive sufficient out-of-cell time, 7 days a week, including time for fresh air and exercise, every day, in the outdoor recreation area. Employ a sufficient number of security staff to ensure that all women, including those with mental illnesses, receive out-of-cell time and opportunities for socialization daily. Ensure that all women at the jail have access to reading material to occupy their time and stimulate their minds. Employ a psychiatrist to make rounds and to visit every cell, a minimum of once a week. Create a competency restoration program in the community with appropriate supports for women who can be safely treated in the community. Create a jail-based competency restoration program for women found incompetent to stand trial which provides full days of structured activities and other services equivalent to those provided to men in Fulton County.

Then there are the necessary structural, environmental changes: fix the broken plumbing; provide women with ready access to fresh drinking water; perform daily checks of each cell to ensure that all women have clean sheets, bedding, and uniforms. Perform environmental tests to check for black mold and eradicate it where found; power clean all jail cells on a regular schedule; improve food safety — no more slimy, moldy bologna.

Though it’s 2019, the South Fulton Jail’s mental health units more closely resemble a Victorian asylum than a modern jail. It is unacceptably cruel and counterproductive to isolate people with serious mental illnesses in solitary confinement, and it is particularly egregious to condition access to treatment on a person’s gender. Fulton County is fully capable of implementing the necessary changes. The County can do better, and it must.

Final Legislative Update

The Georgia General Assembly ended the 2019 legislative session a little after midnight on Tuesday, April 2nd and we are happy to report that our efforts, in collaboration with local and state partners, resulted in the passage of positive reforms that will improve the lives of Georgia communities impacted by incarceration. Specifically, the General Assembly passed legislation that will restore certain dignities to incarcerated pregnant women (HB 345), and that will create a study committee focused on the access and quality of behavioral health treatment throughout the state (HB 514). We also successfully stopped multiple attempts by the bail industry to protect wealth-based detention and preempt local bail reform (HB 340 and SB 164).

Below you will find information about the criminal justice bills passed by the General Assembly this session, the advocacy events we hosted and our expectations for 2020.


Behavioral Health Reform Commission

HB 514 (Sponsor – Rep. Kevin Tanner) – Creates the Georgia Mental Health Reform and Innovation Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the behavioral health system which will include the impact on the court systems and correctional system, and the legal and systemic barriers to the treatment of mental illnesses. STATUS: Awaiting the governor’s signature. (SCHR Position – SUPPORT).

Confinement Conditions for Pregnant Women

HB 345 (Sponsor – Rep. Sharon Cooper) – Prohibits shackling in the second and third trimester, squat and cough searches and solitary confinement.) STATUS: Awaiting the governor’s signature. (SCHR Position – SUPPORT).

Law Enforcement Accountability

HB 325 (Sponsor: Sen. Bill Heath) – Requires the records of peace officer investigations are kept by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council for thirty years. STATUS: Awaiting the governor’s signature. (SCHR Position – SUPPORT).

Correctional Facilities and Drones

SB 6 (Sponsor: Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick) – Prohibits the use of unmanned aircraft systems to deliver or attempt to deliver contraband or photograph near a place of incarceration without permission. STATUS: Awaiting the governor’s signature. (SCHR Position – MONITOR).

DNA Collection for First Offenders

HB 470 (Sponsor: Rep. Steven Sainz) – Expands the collection of DNA to include people sentenced as first offenders; requires the DNA to be expunged after successful sentence completion. STATUS: Awaiting the governor’s signature. (SCHR Position – MONITOR).

Fines and Fees

SB 73 (Sponsor: Sen. Tyler Harper) Requires pretrial diversion program fees for the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund to be deducted and sent by the clerk to the secretary-treasurer of such fund. STATUS: Awaiting the governor’s signature. (SCHR’s Position – MONITOR).

Hit and Run

SB 1 (Sponsor: Sen. Elena Parent) – “CJ’s law” Creates penalties for hit and run that create serious injuries. STATUS: Awaiting the governor’s signature (SCHR Position – MONITOR).

Juvenile Justice

HB 472 (Sponsor: Rep. Bert Reeves) – Expands the definition of “fictive kin” to include people without blood relations but who have a substantial and positive relationship with the child; requires juvenile courts to consider alternatives to foster care which includes ‘fictive kin’ before removing a child from her home. STATUS: Awaiting the governor’s signature. (SCHR Position – MONITOR).

Overtaking A School Bus

SB 25 (Sponsor: Sen. Bill Heath) – Clarifies the law on overtaking a school bus by specifically allowing drivers to pass when there is a median, unpaved area or physical barrier. STATUS: Signed by the governor on February 15th. (SCHR Position – MONITOR).

Public School Safety

SB 15 (Sponsor: Sen. John Albers) – Requires public schools perform certain threat assessments, prepare a school safety plan and conduct drills; creates ‘school safety coordinators’; and requires the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center to track and share information through a smartphone application. STATUS: Awaiting the governor’s signature. (SCHR Position – Monitored).

Sex Offenses

SB 9 (Sponsor: Sen. Harold Jones) – Creates the crime of sexual extortion punishable by a misdemeanor for the first offense and a felony for a second or subsequent offense; revises the crime of sexual assault by persons with supervisory or disciplinary authority to provide for varying degrees and punishment. STATUS: Awaiting the governor’s signature. (SCHR Position – Monitored).

HB 281 (Sponsor: Rep. Teri Anulewicz) – Increases the penalties for pimping and pandering from misdemeanor of high aggravated nature to a felony with a punishment of 1-10 years in prison. The bill does not create mandatory prison sentences.  STATUS: Awaiting the governor’s signature. (SCHR Position – Monitored).

HB 282 (Sponsor: Scott Holcomb) – Extends the amount of time that sexual crimes evidence that relates to the identity of a perpetrator of an alleged sexual assault are stored from 10 to 50 years. STATUS: Awaiting the governor’s signature. (SCHR Position – Monitored).

Sovereign Immunity

HB 311 (Sponsor: Rep. Andy Welch) – Waives sovereign immunity to allow certain suits against the state for infringements of constitutional and statutory rights. STATUS: Awaiting the governor’s signature. (SCHR Position – Monitored).


Criminal Justice Reform Boot Camp

In partnership with the Social Justice Ministry at Ebenezer Baptist Church, we hosted a Criminal Justice Policy Reform Boot Camp for Georgia lawmakers on February 7th. More than twenty representatives and senators took a deep dive with us into past criminal justice reforms, current problems, and opportunities for reform in this and subsequent legislative sessions. Topics for discussion included decriminalization of minor offenses, community-based behavioral treatment and diversion programs, the assessment and collection of fines and fees, conditions of confinement, excessive prison and probation sentences and race and wealth disparities in the system. We received promising feedback from legislators who promised to continue positive criminal justice reform in Georgia.

Justice Day 2019

Over 450 people attended the 8th Annual Justice Day on February 26th. The event was co-sponsored by dozens of organizations that participate in the Georgia Justice Reform Partnership (JRP), the SCHR-led coalition of criminal justice reform advocates. Attendees were able to hear from local and national leaders, learn about the opportunities for reform in 2019 and participate in an array of advocacy activities. For the first time, in addition to calling lawmakers out to the ropes for in-person conversations, Justice Day participants also wrote letters to the children of incarcerated parents, participated in phone banking, and shared personal stories in a videotaped storytelling room.

Talk Justice Tuesdays

In addition to Justice Day, JRP hosted eight other advocacy events at the capitol during the session to provide weekly opportunities for people to advocate for specific reforms. The Talk Justice Tuesdays (TJT) series brought hundreds of people together to discuss issues important to communities impacted by incarceration and identify strategies for moving forward.

The 2019 Talk Justice Tuesdays Series included:

The Road to Criminal Justice Reform in 2019 (Jan. 22) – We hosted the first TJT where more than thirty people discussed expectations for reform in 2019, received information about legislative committee assignments and identified advocacy strategies.

Second Chance Day 2019 (Feb. 5) – Georgia Justice Project hosted this TJT focused on criminal records and expungement. Over 130 people attended and learned about efforts to pass legislation to allow the restriction of old convictions to improve opportunities for employment and housing.

Dignity for Incarcerated Women (Feb. 12) – RestoreHER hosted an advocacy day focused on the unique experiences of women who are in Georgia’s prisons and jails. Over 35 people attended to hear personal stories from women who have experienced incarceration, and to learn about legislative efforts. Specifically, attendees discussed strategies for supporting HB 345.

In Your Backyard: Housing and Criminal Justice (Feb. 19) – National Incarceration Association hosted this TJT to present an informative advocacy event about the challenges faced by people with a criminal history to access safe and affordable housing. More than 60 people participated in discussions about the current climate, the limited resources available for service providers and the possibility of legislative reforms.

Working Together Works: Impact of Incarceration on Families (Mar. 5) – National Incarceration Association and ForeverFamily brought nearly 50 people together to discuss the impact incarceration has on the children and families of people who are incarcerated. Attendees heard mothers, children and siblings of incarcerated Georgians talk about the legal barriers that exists and how organizations are making a difference. Data about how many people in Georgia are impacted and relevant 2019 budgetary items were presented to the group, which provided a moment to discuss specific opportunities for positive and meaningful policy reform.

Marijuana and Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice (Mar. 12) – The ACLU of Georgia hosted this TJT focused on marijuana reform in Georgia. Nearly 50 people came to hear from lawmakers leading in the reform space, learn about relevant legislative efforts and get training on how to engage in reform.

Healthcare NOT Handcuffs (Mar. 19) – No Health = No Justice Campaign and the Atlanta/Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative co-hosted the TJT focused on local and statewide responses to behavioral health issues that support safe treatment instead of incarceration. More than 50 people learned about the history of behavioral health reforms in Georgia and heard the powerful stories of individuals from the RESPECT Institute who shared incredible journeys to recovery despite harsh criminal justice polices. There was also a panel of five lawmakers, Rep. Erick Allen, Rep. David Dreyer, Rep. Gregg Kennard, Rep. Shelley Hutchinson and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver who actively listened and answered questions about the ways to be involved in policy reforms.


Through the JRP, we have been working for years to build political power at the grassroots and grass-tops levels to demand that proactive, comprehensive criminal justice reforms continue. This was the first of a two-year legislative session, which means that all the bills that were introduced this year can still become law if passed in 2020. In addition to monitoring the below bills that will be pending next session, we also hope to further legislative proposals that will improve jail and prisons, eliminate mandatory prison sentences and end the criminalization of poverty.

Here is a list of the bills we will be watching next year:

            SCHR Will Support –

Reclassifying and Decriminalizing Minor Offenses

  • HR 47 (Sponsor: Sandra Scott) – Proposes the creation of a House Study Committee on the Decriminalization of Traffic Violations to determine which offenses warrant classification as a misdemeanor offense and which should be downgraded to a civil infraction.
  • HB 342 (Sponsor: Rep. Matt Dollar) – Allows an officer to issue a citation for a code violation relating to a traffic violation pertaining to registration, license plates, decals or storage of unlicensed vehicle to the owner of the vehicle as opposed to the operator if the owner is present at the time.
  • HB 724 (Sponsor: Rep. Matthew Wilson) – Allows counties to adopt ordinances to expand the use of fines as penalties for ordinances governing the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.
  • SB 10 (Sponsor: Sen. Harold Jones) – Requires that possession of less than two ounces of marijuana constitute a misdemeanor offense punishable by less than one year in person and that possession of more than two ounces constitute felony possession with intent punishable by 1-10 years in prison.

Restricting the Death Penalty

  • HB 267 (Sponsor: Rep. Billy Mitchell) – Prohibits the death penalty from being imposed in cases where the only evidence of defendant’s guilt is the testimony of one eyewitness.
  • HB 702 (Sponsor: Rep. Brett Harrell) – Prohibits capital punishment in the state and commutes capital sentences to life without parole.

Improving Reentry 

  • HB 268 (Sponsor: Rep. Billy Mitchell) – Allows record restriction for individuals convicted of certain misdemeanors and felonies to petition the court to restrict access to criminal history; also changes to victim’s notification of defendant’s motion for new trial or release on bail.
  • HB 309 (Sponsor: Gregg Kennard) – Requires automatic record restriction for certain misdemeanors and felonies upon sentence completion.
  • HB 364 (Sponsor: Rep. William Boddie) – Allows a second opportunity for people to avoid conviction under the Conditional Discharge Act and the First Offender Act if the person benefited from these laws while under the age of 25.
  • HB 415 (Sponsor: Rep. Gregg Kennard) – Issues personal identification cards to individuals completing a sentence of incarceration.
  • HB 528 (Sponsor: Rep. Mandi Ballinger) – Restricts records for individuals convicted of certain felonies and misdemeanors with exceptions.
  • SB 11 (Sponsor: Sen. Harold Jones) – Provides that people convicted of felony drug possession offenses shall not constitute felonies involving moral turpitude and shall not have their voting rights restricted.
  • SR 153 (Sponsor: Sen. Harold Jones) – Creates a Senate Study Committee on Revising Voting rights for nonviolent felony offenders.

Improving Behavioral Health Treatment

  • HB 178 (Sponsor: Don Hogan) – Creates a unit within the Dept. of Behavioral Health which would study the current practices and act as an advisory council to research several issues regarding mental health including providing service and treatment plans.

Regulating Private Prisons

  • HB 308 (Sponsor: Rep. Jason Ridley) – Prohibits any agency from entering into a contract with any private entity which would allow the entity to exclusively hold public records which are subject to disclosure.
  • HB 403 (Sponsor: Rep. Scott Holcomb) – Prohibits any private entity from operating a detention facility in the state.

Improving the Juvenile Justice System

  • HB 318/HB 441 (Sponsor: Rep. Roger Bruce) – Creates a “safe care” program within the Juvenile Code that young people can voluntarily enter into for access to drug treatment professionals, social programs, and local and state government agencies.
  • HB 438 (Sponsor: Rep. Mandi Ballinger) – Eliminates the use of restraints on children while in court with exceptions.
  • HB 440 (Sponsor: Rep. Mandi Ballinger) – Raises the age under which a young person has the Juvenile Code as opposed to the adult code applied to their charge from 17 to 18.

Expanding Access to Veterans’ Court

  • HB 82 (Sponsor: Rep. Mandi Ballinger) – Allows judges to send people to veterans’ court without the consent of the prosecutor.

Compensation for People Wrongfully Convicted

  • HB 172 (Sponsor: Rep. Carolyn Hugley) – Creates a claim advisory board to consider and make recommendations to the General Assembly concerning payment of compensation to those wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

SCHR Will Oppose –

Attacks on Cash Bail Reform

  • HB 340 (Sponsor: Rep. Micah Gravley) – Mandates cash bail for immediate release from incarceration; would preempt existing bail reform in City of Atlanta and prevent any other jurisdiction from ending cash bail for any offense.
  • SB 164 (Sponsor: Sen. Bill Cowsert) – Mandates cash bail for immediate release from incarceration; would preempt existing bail reform in City of Atlanta and prevent any other jurisdiction from ending cash bail for any offense.

Excessive Punishment & Longer Sentences

  • HB 720 (Sponsor: Rep. Steven Sainz) – increases the use of probation for people convicted of sexual offenses; allows probation for life for felony offenses and outlines a risk assessment tier system.
  • SB 64 (Sponsor: Sen. William Ligon) – Adds “terroristic threats” to the list of felonies in the Juvenile code when the threat is directed toward individuals at or against a public or private elementary school, secondary school, technical school, college, etc.

      Anti-Immigrant Proposals

  • HB 202 (Sponsor: Rep. Jesse Petrea) – Requires the commissioner of corrections to report certain information regarding the immigration status, offenses and home countries of persons who are confined under the authority of the Department of Corrections every 9 days.

       SCHR Will Monitor –

  • HB 17 (Sponsor: Rep. Sandra Scott) – Creates the misdemeanor crime of smoking in a vehicle while a child under the age of 13 is present; punishable by a $100 fine.
  • HB 19 (Sponsor: Sandra Scott) – Seeks to protect individuals from discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and employment based on sexual orientation, gender identity and age.
  • HB 20 (Sponsor: Rep. Debra Bazemore) – Prohibits persons convicted of family violence offenses from possessing or carrying firearms punishable by 5 – 10 years in prison.
  • HB 38 (Sponsor: Rep. Rhonda Burnough) – Defines the term “conviction” in the theft statutes.
  • HB 73 (Sponsor: Rep. Marc Morris) – Allows state elected officials to engage in the bail bonds industry.
  • HB 82 (Sponsor: Rep. Mandi Ballinger) – Allows judges to send individuals to people to veterans’ court without the consent of the prosecutor.
  • HB 88 (Sponsor: Rep. Mable Thomas) – “CJ’s law” Creates penalties for hit and run that create serious injuries.
  • HB 129 (Sponsor: Rep. Ron Stephens) – Creates an exception to the prohibition on selling or furnishing knuckles to person under 18.
  • HB 179 (Sponsor: Rep. Colton Moore) – Changes the criteria for school climate rating to no longer include discipline data on behavior indicators.
  • HB 258 (Sponsor: Rep. William Boddie) – Adds offenses of aggravated sexual battery to the list of offenses for which the statute of limitations is tolled is the victim is under 16.
  • HB 259 (Sponsor: Rep. Mandi Ballinger) – Requires Georgia Crime Information Center to provide criminal history record information to the Sexual Offender Registration Board upon request.
  • HB 260 (Sponsor: Rep. Mandi Ballinger) – Adds a section to home invasion in the first degree to include “intent to commit family violence battery” to the unlawful entering of a dwelling house while it is occupied.
  • HB 262 (Sponsor: Rep. Sheila Nelson) – Adds the instance of “death while receiving compensated care” to times when medical examiner is authorized to conduct investigation into suspicious death.
  • HB 270 (Sponsor: Rep. Jeff Jones) – Prohibits drivers licenses or photo ID that would otherwise be proper identification for voting if the ID was issued to a non-citizen. Requires participation in the E-Verify program of United States Dept. of Homeland Security.
  • HB 280 (Sponsor: Rep. Teri Anulewicz) – Prohibits mechanical restraints, including handcuffs and shackles, on an inmate during labor or during delivery with exceptions.
  • HB 331 (Sponsor: Rep. Mandi Ballinger) – Adds dating relationship and persons through whom a past of present pregnancy developed to definition of ‘family violence battery’.
  • HB 489 (Sponsor: Rep. Darlene Taylor) – Creates the crime of traveling to meet a minor for indecent purposes.
  • HB 605 (Sponsor: Rep. Patty Bentley) – Requires applicants to nursing homes to disclose whether they are listed on the state sexual offender registry.
  • HB 636 (Sponsor: Rep. Renitta Shannon) – Requires all law enforcement officers to report in writing every use of force against any person.
  • HB 670 (Sponsor: Rep. Bee Nguyen) – Broadens access to driving cards to noncitizens and individuals who lack traditional forms of ID such as birth certificates.
  • SB 35 (Sponsor: Sen. Lester Jackson) – Prohibits people required to register on the Sex Offender Registry from living within 2000 feet of the victim or the victim’s immediate family.
  • SB 150 (Sponsor: Sen. Jennifer Jordan) – Prohibits persons convicted of misdemeanor crimes of family violence from receiving, possessing, or transporting a firearm and to prohibit persons subject to family violence protective orders from receiving, possessing, or transporting a firearm.
  • SB 166 (Sponsor: Sen. Lester Jackson) – “Georgia Enhanced Penalties for Hate Crimes Act” outlines sentencing of defendants who commit certain crimes which target a victim because of the victim’s race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity.
  • SB 187  (Sponsor: Sen. Elena Parent) – Provides for a judicial procedure for purging a person’s involuntary hospitalization information.
  • SB 222 (Sponsor: Sen. Jesse Stone) – Allows law enforcement agencies to issue citations without having to collect fingerprints and requires the GBI to develop a uniform misdemeanor citation form. The bill was introduced to create governor’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform, but the language was removed by the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.
  • SB 229 (Sponsor: Sen. Randy Robertson) – Creates a ‘parental accountability court’ under the jurisdiction of the Council of Accountability Court Judges of Georgia.
  • SB 269 (Sponsor: Sen. Chuck Payne) – Provides a penalty for persons who are classified as ‘sexually dangerous predators’ who fail to report and update registration information.

Court-Watching on March 6, 2019, at the Atlanta Municipal Court

At the Southern Center for Human Rights, we’ve used court-watching as a tool for a long time. Court-watching was central to the litigation and advocacy that led to the creation of a Public Defender system in Georgia; it’s been central to our strategy in combating illegal practices by private probation companies, and it’s always helping us to uncover the rare and appalling corruption of city and court officials who are attempting to turn a profit off of the backs of poor people. We think that these stories matter.

Today, we’re launching our first court-watching summary. The below observations are from a staff investigator who watched court at the Atlanta Municipal Court on March 6th, 2019. The experiences of these defendants reflects what happens in Municipal Courts across the state on a daily basis: the imposition of many days in jail on poor, homeless, and/or mentally ill individuals who are charged with misdemeanors or ordinance violations.

A 56-year-old Black man was charged with Pedestrian Walking in Roadway. An officer rolled him into court in a wheelchair, where he was slumped, with his eyes mostly closed.

The assistant solicitor read some of the defendant’s prior charges: Pedestrian Soliciting in Roadway, with a Failure to Appear from 2014; another Pedestrian Soliciting in the Roadway charge from 2018. The public defender (PD) asked Judge Sloan to quash all three citations. She cited a Georgia Court of Appeals case, Strickland v. State, and argued that the citations were defective because they didn’t state the essential elements of the charged offenses. Judge Sloan gave the solicitor time to prepare a response as other defendants came before the judge. At the end of court, the defendant was brought back in front of Judge Sloan. The PD requested time served, because the defendant was indigent and the charges were non-violent, quality of life charges. The PD asked for leniency, as the defendant was “merely walking.” The solicitor recommended 30 days to serve in jail.  Judge Sloan sentenced the defendant to 20 days in jail on each count, to run concurrently.

A 32-year-old Black woman was charged with Begging/Soliciting by Accosting/Force. According to the arrest report, the defendant was homeless.

The assistant solicitor announced the defendant’s prior charge of Solicitation of Money within 15 feet of a business. Other prior convictions included Violating Rules at Passenger Train Station (she hadn’t paid a MARTA fare); Solicitation for Money on Train; Solicitation and Possession of Marijuana; and Failures to Appear for walking in between train cars. The defendant told Judge Sloan she did not want an attorney. The Judge told the woman that these charges could cost her $6,000, 3 years to serve in jail, or both. The defendant seemed confused. She said that she thought she had already served time for the charges that the Judge was reading, and became distressed, trying to inform the court that she had already served the time, and looked around the room in an attempt to find the public defender who had previously represented her. The public defender was not in the room, and the Judge did not respond. As the Judge read each of the charges, the defendant kept repeating “nolo” rapidly, cutting into each charge before it was finished being read. Her behavior seemed likely to be caused by a mental illness. Throughout the process, the defendant was bouncing up and down on her toes. Judge Sloan sentenced her to 10 days in jail.

A 49-year-old Latinx man was charged with driving without a license.

The public defender (PD) announced that this was the defendant’s second license charge in 5 years. The PD asked Judge Sloan to accept a negotiated nolo contendere plea (a plea by which a defendant accepts conviction as though a guilty plea had been entered, but does not admit guilt) so that he could be released from jail. As he pled nolo, he seemed to be relying on the PD’s prompting to answer questions. The PD told Judge Sloan (paraphrasing) that the standard sentence was $1,000 or 10 days to serve Judge Sloan said that he would impose a $1,000 fine and a 10 day jail sentence. He said he would suspend the fine, so the defendant can serve out the remainder of this 10 days. There was no inquiry into the defendant’s ability to afford a fine.

A 40-year-old Black man was charged with Walking Upon Control Access Highway. The defendant likely had a mental illness that appeared to make it difficult for him to understand what was happening in the courtroom.

As the defendant stepped up to the podium, the bailiff tried to help him pull up his pants, which were falling down. The defendant began working on untying a belt or rope that was tied around his pants, which preoccupied him throughout the time that Judge Sloan was speaking to him. A public defender entered a negotiated guilty plea, and the solicitor recommended 5 days in jail. The Judge asked the defendant if he was aware of each of his rights, and he responded “yeah, yeah,” while continuing to fiddle with his pants. When the Judge asked how he wanted to plea, he said, again, “yeah, yeah.” The Judge changed his tone and asked: “do you plead guilty?” The defendant seemed startled and stopped fidgeting with his pants. He replied, in a surprised tone, “oh, ok!” The Judge sentenced him to 5 days in jail. The defendant, again seeming surprised, said “oh, ok!” He left the court-room still trying to tie up his pants.

Every Defendant Deserves a Trial Free of Race Discrimination

In September of 2017, Keith “Bo” Tharpe came within hours of execution; the Supreme Court granted a stay at the 11th hour. This week, the same Court announced that it would not be re-examining the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to deny Mr. Tharpe the ability to appeal his death sentence. No state or federal court has yet to consider whether Mr. Tharpe’s death sentence is invalid due to one of his juror’s openly racist views

Mr. Tharpe, now 61, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Jones County, Georgia, in 1991. His trial — like so many others — was tainted by race discrimination. Racial bias can, and often does, infect a case early on in what are called “peremptory strikes.” In the jury selection process (called “voir dire”) potential jurors are questioned, and both prosecutors and defense attorneys are permitted a certain number of strikes, where they can block potential jurors from serving. While it’s unconstitutional to strike a potential juror on the basis of their race, coming up with race-neutral excuses is a strategy often employed – successfully –  by prosecutors. The Jury Sunshine Project found that prosecutors strike roughly 20% of available Black jurors in the pool, compared with only 10% of whites. In many communities, those numbers are much more extreme. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, Houston County, Alabama prosecutors have struck 8 out of 10 qualified Black potential jurors in death penalty cases. Studies have consistently shown that all-white juries are considerably harsher towards black defendants, are prone to making more errors, and less likely to discuss all of the case facts.

Joseph Briley, the prosecutor who secured Mr. Tharpe’s capital conviction, had earned a reputation for his use of peremptory strikes in jury selection. In 1988, Southern Center client Tony Amadeo’s conviction and death sentence were overturned in a unanimous opinion by the Supreme Court, after the court found that Briley and Putnam County, Georgia officials illegally kept Black residents out of the pool of potential jurors. In Mr. Tharpe’s case, Briley struck five out of eight black potential jurors. A white man named Barnie Gattie was selected to serve on the jury. Seven years after Mr. Tharpe’s conviction, his lawyers interviewed Gattie, and the evidence of his deep-rooted racial animus became clear.

In a sworn affidavit, Gattie said “after studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls. For example, look at OJ Simpson. That white woman wouldn’t have been killed if she hadn’t have married that black man.” Gattie further testified that the murder victim, who was also Black, came from a family of “nice black folks. “… If they had been the type Tharpe is, then picking between life and death for Tharpe wouldn’t have mattered so much,” Gattie said. “My feeling is, what would be the difference?”

Black people have been and still are systematically barred from serving on juries. This was the case for Southern Center client Johnny Lee Gates, who was wrongfully convicted of murder by an all-white jury after all potential black jurors were excluded. This was also the case for former Southern Center client Timothy Foster, whose conviction and death sentence were overturned by the Supreme Court in 2016. The court found racial bias during the selection of the all-white jury that decided Mr. Foster’s fate, bolstered by the prosecution’s own color-coded notes describing their efforts to keep Black people off the jury.

In light of Timothy Foster’s win at the Supreme Court, the court remanded the case of Curtis Flowers, a black Mississippi man who has been tried six times for the same crime, and argues that his conviction and death sentence should be thrown out due to his prosecutor’s history of excluding black jurors. The Mississippi courts denied relief again. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard Mr. Flowers’ case.

Black people are frequently sentenced to death for murdering white people, but white people are seldom sentenced to death for murdering black people. The death penalty as we know it today is a direct scion of racial violence in America, primarily in the South.

Read more about Keith Tharpe.

Read more about Curtis Flowers.

Read more about Johnny Lee Gates.

We Think These Stories Are Important

In 2006, the United States recorded a record high number of newly filed, reopened, or reactivated cases: across the nation’s state courts, a staggering total of 102.4 million cases. More than half of those — 54% — fell under the traffic category, which captures non-criminal traffic and local ordinance violations. 10 years later, in Georgia, an even higher percentage (65%) of all cases handled by the state were these same traffic and ordinance violations.

These might not seem like serious, life-altering cases — but in many instances, they can be. Traffic and ordinance violations are how the majority of Americans first encounter the courts, and for people experiencing poverty, it’s how they often become trapped in the system. These encounters with the courts are how public trust and confidence is shaped. They are critically important.

At the Southern Center for Human Rights, we’ve used court-watching as a tool for a long time. Court-watching was central to the litigation and advocacy that led to the creation of a Public Defender system in Georgia; it’s been central to our strategy in combating illegal practices by private probation companies, and it’s always helping us to uncover the rare and appalling corruption of city and court officials who are attempting to turn a profit off of the backs of poor people.

Now, we’re launching a new project on the blog: bi-monthly summaries of our staff’s experiences watching Municipal Courts across Georgia. Seemingly banal interactions in these courts have long-lasting, corrosive effects on individuals, families, and communities. We think that these stories are important, and we hope you do, too. We’ll share the first #CourtWatchGA post next Wednesday.

Civil Rights Lawsuit Challenges the Illegal Mass Arrest of 60+ Partygoers for Less Than an Ounce of Marijuana in Cartersville, Georgia

Today, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Merchant Law Firm, PC are filing suit against the City of Cartersville, Georgia, and select employees of the Cartersville Police Department, Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force, and Bartow County Sheriff’s Office on behalf of seven plaintiffs and other putative class members. The suit challenges the mass detention, search, and arrest of over sixty students, college graduates, and military servicemen attending a birthday party at a private residence in Cartersville, Georgia, on December 30th, 2017. Plaintiffs seek damages and declaratory relief on behalf of a class of all visitors who were detained, arrested, and charged with crimes that were dismissed just 12 days later.

In the early hours of December 31st, Cartersville Police Officers were dispatched to an apartment complex near the private residence after reports of gunshots (which they found no evidence of). Despite their car windows being up, officers claimed to have somehow smelled marijuana as they grew closer to the residence. Bolstered by a city policy that allows warrantless home entry on the mere basis of purported marijuana odors, officers entered the private residence without consent, a warrant, or probable cause.

Once inside, the officers found less than an ounce of marijuana. Though the officers could not tie the marijuana to any of the partygoers, they detained and searched everyone at the party. These searches yielded no drugs or contraband, but an officer announced that everyone was going to jail anyway. In total, sixty-four putative class members were arrested and taken to the Bartow County Jail for allegedly possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. Of those 64, 50 were African-American, 10 were white, 3 were Latino, and 1 Native American.

“Cartersville and Bartow County officers swarmed a predominantly black and brown house party, and arrested everyone because of a small amount of marijuana.  This mass arrest wasted taxpayer dollars and undermined the public’s faith in unbiased policing,” said SCHR Senior Staff Attorney Atteeyah Hollie.

Upon arriving at the jail, everyone – including some persons as young as 17 — were stripped-searched in front of multiple officers, and placed in crowded and freezing cold holding tanks, where they stayed for 1-3 days without access to phones, the courts, or counsel. Some were placed in solitary confinement when they complained about their treatment. The solitary cells were so cold that some people wrapped toilet paper around their appendages, or exercised in place to stay warm. One person who experiences seizures informed a jail nurse of her condition, but did not receive her anti-seizure medication until the third day of her detention. A pregnant woman was denied prenatal pills and received no care when she vomited repeatedly in a holding cell garbage can. A diabetic received a dosage of insulin that exacerbated his condition.

“It’s a different type of hurt when you get arrested for something you didn’t do,” plaintiff Nija Guider told The Appeal. Guider lost her job as a result of the arrest, and had to resort to food pantries to feed her young son while she spent two and a half months looking for a new job.

Nija Guider and her son.

“Imagine being arrested simply for attending a party,” said SCHR Staff Attorney Ebony Brown. “Then, imagine being subjected to a dehumanizing strip-search in front of multiple people, and forced into a crowded, freezing cage for days on end, away from your loved ones, your children, and your source of income. It is anything but inconsequential.”

Twelve days after the arrests, the Bartow County District Attorney dismissed the charges.  The arrests had already been highly publicized — mugshots were available online — and multiple people lost jobs or had to take drug tests to keep them. Others had potential scholarships affected, military enlistment deferred, and suffered public ridicule, online harassment, and humiliation.  Many partygoers had never been arrested before. Some plaintiffs report that they are now fearful, and no longer trust, law enforcement because of this incident.

“Police should know better than this. These arrests went well beyond sloppy police work; they were unconstitutional.  They arrested everybody at a party, literally everyone, without regard to proximity and without even posing questions to individuals,” said SCHR Senior Attorney Gerry Weber.

Read the complaint here.

When a Lawyer’s Conflict Can Be Fatal

“A deeply troubling truth about the death penalty is that it is often handed down not to people who commit the worst crimes, but on those assigned the worst lawyer to represent them.” – Steve Bright, Former President of the Southern Center for Human Rights

Southern Center for Human Rights client Nicholas (Nick) Acklin’s case is now up for review at the United States Supreme Court. His story serves as a clear and tragic reminder that bad or conflicted lawyering can be potentially fatal.

Nicholas Acklin.

Days after Nick was arrested, in September of 1996, his mother Velma Acklin Evans contacted a Huntsville, Alabama attorney named Behrouz Rahmati. Rahmati agreed to represent Nick, and Velma agreed to a $25,000 retainer and a fee of $150 per hour. When it became clear that she would not be able to afford the costs, Rahmati contacted Nick’s father, Theodis Acklin, for help. Theodis became the attorney’s primary source of funds.

Just two days before Nick went to trial, Velma met with Rahmati alone. She shared with him that Theodis had routinely abused her and their children; they endured frequent beatings, emotional abuse, and threats at gunpoint. In one such incident, she fell out of a second-story window while fighting with Theodis over a rifle.

Years later, all of this abuse was corroborated. Nick’s brother testified that his father would come into a room when the siblings were all together, strike them with a belt, and “have the gun in hand and tell us he will kill all of us and kill himself.” This abuse was confirmed by the Alabama Department of Human Resources, which had investigated an incident in which Theodis had admitted to pulling a gun on his sons and stating, “I brought you into the world and I can take you out.”

Nick Acklin as a child.

Rahmati was aware of how powerfully persuasive mitigating evidence can be to both juries and judges. He was aware that the evidence of Theodis’s abuse could mean the difference between life and death for his client. But when Rahmati asked Theodis if he would be willing to testify in court about this abuse, Theodis angrily refused. “You tell Nick if he wants to go down this road, I’m done with him” and “done with helping with this case,” he told Rahmati.

Because Theodis was the only person paying him, Rahmati acquiesced. He did not investigate the matter any further. He did not ask the court for a continuance. And, crucially, he did not inform the court or his client about the conflict. What he did do, within just 36 hours of learning about the abuse, was to sit Nick down and have him sign a document stating that he did not want the evidence of abuse presented at trial.

This meant that instead of hearing this crucial mitigating evidence, Nick’s jury heard falsehoods. At the penalty phase, Theodis was put on the stand. He testified — falsely — to the jury that Nick was raised in a loving and safe home. He told the jury that his son sang in the church choir. He talked about taking his son to the dentist and parent-teacher conferences. If anything, he testified, he was “overprotective” of Nick. Two weeks later, at a judicial sentencing proceeding before the judge, Theodis again testified falsely, telling the judge that Nick was “raised in a Christian home” with “good values” but “somehow slipped.”

The jury voted 10-2 for death – the minimum number of votes required for a death recommendation under Alabama law.

When the judge imposed a death sentence on Nick, he expressly relied on Theodis’s testimony, specifying that Nick had not experienced physical abuse (which he had) and that he was not the product of a dysfunctional household (which he was). “Most killers are typically the products of poverty, a dysfunctional family, physical or sexual abuse and/or social deprivation,” the Court wrote. “Acklin was the product of a loving middle-class family.”

As Andrew Cohen writes for The Marshall Project, “Acklin, like all criminal defendants, had a constitutional right to an attorney who does not have an ‘actual conflict of interest.’ And there is plenty of legal precedent, as well as state and national bar association ethical rules, that reasonably label what happened between the lawyer and the client here as an ‘actual conflict.’”

In an amicus brief in support of Nick, legal ethicists say that the situation “created a textbook division of loyalties” for Rahmati. They urge the Supreme Court to accept Nick’s petition, because “[u]nder ethics norms and rules of professional responsibility applicable across every jurisdiction, Nicholas Acklin’s trial attorney labored under an acute and obvious conflict of interest that resulted in a denial of Acklin’s Sixth Amendment rights.”

What is clear is that Nick Acklin was convicted and sentenced to death based on a foundational misunderstanding of the facts on the part of both the jury and the judge. At every turn, his attorney sought to serve his own financial self-interest instead of the needs of his client. Nick, like every defendant, has a constitutional right to representation from a lawyer whose judgment is objective, and not tainted by the demands of anyone else. This critically important constitutional principle applies with even greater force in a case where a death sentence is possible.

Southern Center for Human Rights represents Nick Acklin, along with co-counsel Don Verrilli and Dahlia Mignouna.

Read more about Nick’s case here.