PHILADELPHIA – When Deborah Gonzalez took office in January as the district attorney for the Western Judicial District of Georgia, she noticed that too few defendants, especially Black defendants, qualified for a program that promised treatment for addiction or mental health and not jail.
Like many court diversion programs elsewhere, potential participants in the Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties programs were being disqualified for certain previous charges or police contact. People living in poverty also had a hard time qualifying because of program fees.
“My philosophy is there is racial injustice and disparities of how people are treated in this system. And we have to be intentional in how we address it,” Gonzalez said.
Through a grant from a national nonprofit criminal justice advocacy group, Vera Institute of Justice, and a local organization, People Living in Recovery, Gonzalez is redesigning the program to make it more accessible.
Many of the changes enacted by states following George Floyd's death have centered on policing tactics and not on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. On a national level, bipartisan congressional talks on overhauling policing practices have ended without an agreement, bargainers from both parties said last week, despite promises from the Biden administration for change.
And now, groups such as Vera are targeting suburban communities to push through criminal justice changes without new laws.
Vera awarded 10 prosecutors about $550,000 to help reduce racial disparities in prosecution. The prosecutors in Georgia, Virginia, Michigan, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Missouri, New York and Indiana – most of whom were elected in the past two years on progressive platforms – are looking at programs or policies in their offices that disproportionately affect defendants of color.
Some prosecutors are addressing prosecution of specific crimes or making diversion programs more inclusive. Others are looking at ways to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system all together.
“There was a desire to do more in this moment, to address the system that continues to allow this to happen. So we started asking if there is something more we can do with this unique moment to reimagine what a just system looks like,” said Jamila Hodge, the former director of the Reshaping Prosecution Program with Vera.
In Gonzalez's district, for example, about 22% of the district's overall population is Black. Of the more than 6,800 people charged during 2019 and 2020, the majority were Black. Fewer than 150 were referred to the pretrial program, and most came from a county that is only 5% Black.
She hopes to double participation in her program by 2022, and will put in checks to monitor that the diversity is increasing.
Vera will provide support for 12 months. The hope is to reduce the disproportionately high number of Black and brown people prosecuted and incarcerated by 20% in the pilot areas. The grants require the prosecutors to partner with local community-based organizations.
In Washtenaw County, Michigan, home to Ann Arbor, prosecutor Eli Savit is working with a group called My Brothers Keeper to divert young people of color accused of nonviolent crimes into a mentoring program. Savit, who took office in January, said he wants to focus on interventions that happen with kids who are acting out or committing minor crimes.
“What we're trying to do is intervene early without the criminal justice system's involvement, without creating a record that can hold them back. It can have this cascading effect on their lives. Job applications ask if you've ever been charged, not whether you've been convicted,” Savit said.
In Chatham County, Georgia, home to Savannah, chief assistant district attorney Michael Edwards said an analysis of Black men and boys in criminal justice system found they made up disproportionate number of the people being charged with gun possession.
The office, in partnership with Savannah Feed the Hungry, developed a program called Show Us Your Guns that focuses on people between age 16 and 25 who are found to be in possession of a gun during an interaction with police. As long as those men didn't use those weapons in commission of a crime, they are eligible for the program instead of arrest or jail. It requires they turn in the gun in exchange for participation.