South Fulton, Ga., sits southwest of Atlanta. The new suburb is in its infancy: It formed just over a year ago, making it the 11th city to incorporate in the metro area since 2005.
In its first year as a city, South Fulton garnered attention for putting African American women in control of its criminal justice system. It’s something no other U.S. city with a population of 100,000 or more has done.
There’s Solicitor LaDawn Blackett Jones, who serves as the city’s prosecutor. And there’s Chief Judge Tiffany Carter Sellers and Public Defender Viveca R. Famber Powell. The court administrator and clerks are also black women.
They are taking a somewhat different approach to South Fulton’s criminal justice system. The sentence for shoplifting may include attending city council meetings instead of serving jail time. Residents found guilty of driving without a license may be required to register to vote in exchange for a reduced fine — in addition to obtaining a driver’s license.
While insisting on upholding the law, the women say they also hope their approaches to criminal justice exhibit “empathy” and “nurturing,” as well as respect for the city’s residents.
In South Fulton, there is a focus on community policing, pretrial diversion programs and assigning public defenders to all cases — a policy that levels the playing field in the municipal court. Pretrial diversion programs give certain defendants the opportunity to accept community-service work or mandatory involvement in civic life, like attending city council meetings, instead of jail time or hefty fines.
There’s also the “green team,” an option for certain offenders who can’t afford fines. Instead, they’re required to work with the city’s parks and recreation department for $15 an hour.
This isn’t about being soft on crime, said Blackett Jones, who was charged with creating the pretrial diversion program.
But at the same time, she hopes her city is creating “a framework for community-oriented courts that could be an example for the world.”
Another feature of the system comes from Carter Sellers, the chief judge, who is intent on educating defendants in her courtroom about their rights and the judicial process — even if it means taking longer to finish the day’s schedule.
“In my community, there’s a stigma that the system will railroad them,” Carter Sellers said. “For many people, it’s their first interaction with the justice system. It’s important to slow down — even if five minutes.”
“It’s important for judges to strike a balance between a sense of decorum and understanding, compassion and empathy with the people they live with,” she added.
The city’s criminal justice approach could have effects yet to be measured, particularly since fewer than two dozen people have entered pretrial diversions, according to Blackett Jones.
“Ultimately, we should expect to see fewer black bodies going through the system,” said Michael Leo Owens, political science professor at Emory University. Also, if successful, “we will see people pushing for incorporation in [other] places … including this [approach] in their platforms.”
South Fulton Mayor Bill Edwards backs the court’s approach, even with the possibility of reduced revenue from fines and the costs of the court programs, including a person to oversee pretrial diversion participants.
“What’s the cost of recidivism?” Edwards asked, meaning he hopes the criminal justice and policing policies will save money by reducing crime. Also, he adds, community service programs bring “value to the city,” through the work participants carry out.
Sheila Rogers, South Fulton’s interim police chief, said the city’s approach prizes community relationships. Many incidents involving excessive use of force or police brutality in other cities occurred where “the police department doesn’t have a relationship with the people they serve,” she said.
Rogers, who is a black woman, said the city is sending its 90 officers — most of whom are black — into neighborhoods more often than before the area was incorporated, Rogers said.
“We have two-way communication,” with the city’s residents, she said. “We don’t have a situation where the police is one side, and they’re on the other.”
Although a legal system run by an all-black, all-female team is unique, it’s not completely out of place in South Fulton given the city’s population, and Carter Sellers and the two other women insist their roles at the top happened organically.
South Fulton is the “blackest city in America,” said city councilman khalid kamau [sic], who also is a founding member of the Atlanta chapter of Black Lives Matter. South Fulton’s population is 89 percent African American. Edwards, the city’s mayor, is black, as are all seven council members. Five of them are also women.
Then there’s the history of Atlanta itself, which has long included a robust black professional class, including in the criminal justice system, noted Famber Powell, South Fulton’s public defender. That history includes Leah Ward Sears, who in 2005 became the nation’s first black female state Supreme Court chief justice, and Kimberly M. Esmond Adams, who has served nearly a decade on Fulton County’s Supreme Court.
Famber Powell is the South Fulton group’s veteran, having practiced law since 1984.