‘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].

Judge Grants Injunction to Halt Solitary Confinement and to Remedy “Repulsive” Conditions for Women at South Fulton Jail

United States District Court Judge William M. Ray, II issued a preliminary injunction ordering the Sheriff of Fulton County to take immediate steps to remedy unconstitutional conditions and solitary confinement for women at the South Fulton Jail in Union City. The order comes in Georgia Advocacy Office, et al. v. Sheriff Jackson, et al., a putative class action filed on behalf of women with psychiatric disabilities in the South Fulton Jail’s mental health unit.  The named plaintiffs, M.J. and K.H., are represented by counsel from the Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO) and the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR).  Defendants are Sheriff Jackson, Colonel Mark Adger, and other senior jail officials.

Conditions and Solitary Confinement

During three days of testimony beginning on July 15, Plaintiffs presented evidence that Fulton County jailers respond to symptoms of mental illness by confining women with psychiatric disabilities in isolation cells for months on end.  Plaintiffs further presented photographs from a February 2019 inspection by GAO showing: garbage strewn cells, standing toilet water on the floor, a trail of urine flowing from a cell door, bloody clothes and underwear stained with fecal matter lying in the hallway, toilets full of garbage, and feces and blood on the walls.  Uncontested evidence showed that women with psychiatric disabilities at the jail are locked down in their isolation cells between 23-and 24-hours per day.

One of these women is Plaintiff M.J., a 20-year-old homeless woman. She was arrested in November 2018 on a charge of criminal trespass for allegedly refusing to leave a shopping mall when asked. She has a $500 bond but is unable to afford it. Because she has been identified by Defendants as a person experiencing psychiatric disabilities, jailers isolated M.J. in a so-called “mental health pod” where she was locked inside her cell for over 23 hours per day on average. She twice attempted suicide at the jail during her extended isolation.

Another former detainee, S.P., presented emotional testimony regarding her experience at the jail. She informed the Court that she was kept in isolation for over four months after being charged with misdemeanor trespassing.  Locked in a cell around the clock for weeks without clean clothes or the opportunity to bathe, S.P.’s condition declined dramatically over her time at the jail, to the point that she required hospitalization.

Defendant Adger acknowledged the 23- to 24-hour per day isolation for women in the mental health unit, but noted that his office is working on a plan to improve conditions for women in the mental health pods.

The Court’s Injunction

In issuing its order, the Court referred to the jail conditions as “repulsive,” and noted that people familiar with these  conditions “really ought to have a hard time sleeping at night.”

“It’s unusual for a Court order preliminary relief,” said Devon Orland, Litigation Director for the Georgia Advocacy Office, “the Court wisely recognized that there was a tremendous need for immediate action in order to avoid immediate and irreparable harm.  We hope that the Court’s ruling will bring the County to the table to discuss how to support these women in humane conditions.”

The Court ordered Defendants to offer at least 4 hours of daily out-of-cell time to each woman assigned to its mental health unit, within 30 days of its order.  The Court further ordered the Defendants to establish and file with the Court a written plan, designed to be implemented in another 30 days, for providing sanitary conditions of confinement and out-of-cell therapeutic activities to each woman assigned to the mental health unit.  The Court noted that failure to comply with the order shall not be excused by allegations of inadequate staffing.

“This injunction will likely save someone’s life,” said SCHR Managing Attorney Sarah Geraghty, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs.  “The extreme isolation imposed on women at the jail and the appalling conditions in the mental health unit have long been a recipe for disaster.  We are grateful to the Court for its ruling today.”

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.