Restorative Justice was the keyword in a recent judicial forum involving candidates for judgeship and prosecutorial posts in Metropolitan Atlanta. If these candidates are true to their words, Atlanta is poised to lead the way in implementing a restorative justice approach to combating the mounting tide of crime in metro Atlanta counties.
The forum was held last Saturday, May 7, at the historic Ebeneezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue. It was hosted by Advocacy for Action, an organization dedicated to the recruitment and financing of candidates for judicial offices in Georgia.
Candidates for judge from Fulton, Clayton and Gwinett Counties and two of the three candidates for Solicitor General in Fulton County delivered their elevator pitch to community activists and citizens during the two-hour forum.
Many of the judicial candidates advocated restorative justice measures to address the problems experienced by veterans returning home from war and for criminal defendants who come before the court with mental health issues.
Former Fulton County Court Judge Thelma Wyatt Moore moderated the panel discussion with candidates for judge.
Moore defined Advocacy for Action’s purpose as, “An attempt to increase diversity on the court.”
Gregory McKeithen, a veteran, touted his military service as sensitizing him to the needs of veterans who come before the court. He advocated for the establishment of a Veteran’s Court should he win election to the Superior Court of Gwinett County. In addition to his belief in the restorative justice approach when it comes to veterans, McKeithen made it clear that he favors “Justice that is fair, swift and addresses the need for diversity in Gwinett County.”
McKeithen’s opponent, Ronnie Batchelor, did not attend the forum.
In Fulton County voters will have the rare opportunity to elect a new judge to replace the retiring Judge Forest Bedford.
Judge Bedford chose to serve out his term so that the citizens could decide his replacement and not the Georgia Governor. Vying for this seat are two well educated African American lawyers, Tom Cox and Gabe Banks.
Cox put forth his 30 year career as a lawyer and his recent work with the big law firm Fisher & Phillips as qualifications to serve on the bench. While Banks touted his experience as a Fulton County prosecutor, where he headed the “Gang and Drug Unit.”
Banks told the forum that he “Understands that the success of our judicial system is not measured by how many people you lock up, but in the number of people you don’t see back in the system,” while pledging his support for some type of restorative justice to address the “school to prison pipeline.”
Sterling Eaves is campaigning to replace Judge Bensonetta Lane on the Fulton County Superior Court. She put forth her work in Fulton County Magistrate Court as qualifications to serve on the Superior Court Bench. Eaves urged the group to get out and vote, “Even if you vote for the wrong person.”
Eaves, a white female is in this contest with two African American females, Belinda E. Edwards and Angelia “Angie” McMillan, neither of whom attended the forum due to previous commitments.
Rounding out the Fulton judicial races, the group heard from Eric Dunaway, who proudly proclaimed that he is “A Grady Baby” (meaning he was born at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital). Dunaway expressed an interest in exploring restorative justice measures in his court if he is elected over two white opponents, Andrew Margolis, and Gary M. Alembik, neither of whom attended the forum.
Subtle sparks flew between two of the three candidates for Fulton County Solicitor General, Keith Gammage and Teri Walker. The third candidate, Clinton “Clint” Rucker, did not attend.
Gammage is emerging as a strong proponent of restorative justice, while Walker takes the position that justice should be dispensed professionally, but without pandering to the criminally accused.
Gammage introduced evidence of his efforts to aid persons with misdemeanor arrests and convictions in getting their records either expunged or restricted so that “these people will be able to get a job.”
“I believe in prevention on the front end,” Gammage said.
Also, Gammage pledged to set up Saturday workshops at Greenbriar Mall in Southwest Atlanta to educate young black males on how to go about getting their records cleared. Additionally, he advocated for a strong diversion program that will prevent black teenagers from getting records at an early age.
“The school to prison pipeline is real,” Gammage said. “My first propriety is ending the school to prison pipeline. I have to say that I have the head and the heart for justice.”
Walker said she believes in jailing people who do not pay their fines on time. “I believe in resetting these type cases to give them time to pay their fines. I find that they can come up with the money.”
Walker said that she will deploy a system that ensures cases are prosecuted in a timely manner and will enact procedures to prevent overcrowding in the County Jail and case backlog in the court.
Veteran Atlanta lawyer, Charles Johnson, moderated the discussion of candidates for solicitor general and district attorney. Johnson said, “We have a good opportunity this year to break the good old boy system of appointing judges, as several judges decided to serve out their terms and not allow the Governor to appoint their successor.”
“The difference between diversity in the courts is the difference in how the case was handled in Ferguson and how the Baltimore case was handle,” Johnson said.
The election is on May 24. Early voting has already started.
If this forum is any indication of what is to come, this time next year we may see a shift away from the system of “lock ’em up and throw away the key,” to a more restorative justice approach in Metropolitan Atlanta.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com