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‘369 of 375 people sentenced to life without parole for drug offenses were Black,’ says Southern Center for Human Rights

Panelists (Photo credit: Sistarazzi for Steed Media Service)
Panelists (Photo credit: Sistarazzi for Steed Media Service)

Gideon’s Promise shines a light on shortcomings in the justice system

It’s been 52 years since the The 1963 Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which recognized all Americans have a Constitutional right to counsel, regardless of their ability to pay for it. In tandem with this decision and in honor of the first anniversary of Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, Gideon’s Promise co-hosted a criminal justice panel discussion featuring Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights and Jonathan Rapping, MacArthur Genius Fellow. The event, held at 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd. in Atlanta, also featured the HBO Award winning documentary, Gideon’s Army, and is one of several free and family-friendly programs offered by the Center for Civil and Human Rights in celebration of its first anniversary.

Gideon’s Promise is “a nonprofit organization that works tirelessly to inspire, mobilize and train legal professionals to provide the highest quality defense representation to people unable to afford an attorney.”

The discussion, “The Problem. The Need. The Solution: Criminal Justice in the South Today,” addressed the current state of the judicial system in the South.

Jonathan Rapping (Photo credit: Sistarazzi for Steed Media Service)
Jonathan Rapping (Photo credit: Sistarazzi for Steed Media Service)

“The Center for Civil and Human Rights is vital in connecting the American Civil Rights Movement to today’s deficiencies in the justice system,” says Rapping, founder and president of Gideon’s Promise. “With this dialogue and screening, we hope to educate the Atlanta community about how it can join us in the fight to ensure ‘equal justice for all’ is not an empty promise.”

For criminal justice systemic changes must occur to ensure all Americans truly receive equal justice.

“With most traffic offenses, what happens is if you’re a person who has means, you can go to court, get your fine, write the check and pay for it,” says Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, “If you’re unable to pay that day, the court will put you on probation for a year where you have to go in and pay monthly, but you’re also paying an additional probation fee. People with less wind up paying two and three times more than the person who has the means.”

Nearly 80 percent of the 12 million people who move annually through the U.S. criminal justice system cannot afford an attorney; and according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 964 public defender offices nationwide received nearly 6 million indigent defense cases in 2007 (most recent information available).

Totonchi used Adel Edwards’ case as an example of the injustice. “He is in a lawsuit challenging one of the worst private probation companies in the state. He is an older man who is severely, intellectually disabled – can’t read or write. He is one of our most destitute clients who lives in very low conditions. He was arrested for burning leaves in his yard without a permit. His fine was $500. He couldn’t pay it. He’s on Social Security. The private probation company assessed an additional $528. They told him he has to pay $250 or go to jail. He stayed in jail for two months until his neighbors raised the $250. This is not right and this is not public safety. He is not public safety threatening. We’re challenging that practice. I can go on and on.”

She shares another case, “Wilmart Martin served 24 years in prison for possession of 3.4 grams of cocaine. To give you a visual for that, that’s equivalent to a nickel, the coin is bigger than 3.4 grams of cocaine. He was a drug addict. It was his third offense. He was sentenced as a recidivist. He got life without parole. He has no violent offenses; they’re all drug charges. At that time he was sentenced, the people who were serving life without parole, it was 375 of them … 369 were Black. This system is set up to do certain things. I am pleased to say that we were able to advocate for Mr. Martin. He is now home living with his daughters who were tiny babies when he went in. We were able to pass legislation in Georgia’s General Assembly that expands parole eligibility for people like Mr. Martin – people who are serving extremely long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.”

Millions of our country’s most vulnerable citizens who can’t afford high-quality, high-dollar legal defense teams put their faith — and often their lives — into America’s broken public-defense system where many plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. As a result, innocent Americans serve jail time simply because an overwhelmed public defender did not have the resources to give the case — or the individual — the time they truly deserved.

Gideon’s Promise and its allies are taking a stand against this injustice, because Constitutional rights should not be elusive, but should be readily available regardless of income.

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