26 February 2020

[Ryan Ralston] - THE OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM

AN ACT OF FORCE
Most incarcerated people in the US are held in state and county facilities. That is why local criminal justice reform is essential. 
2.2 million Americans are currently incarcerated, giving the US the largest prison population in the world.
Almost half a million Americans are in a county jail awaiting some type of court action to be taken on their case. 
10.6 million Americans cycle in/out of county jails throughout each year.
The current discussion about reform has deteriorated into a thoughtless response designed to address a “disturbing” statistic identified by a self-serving politician, looking to get voted into office by arousing public fear, or to minimize the accountability for those who prosecute cases on behalf the state. Both are tainted, statist views. 
Actual reform requires courage, not government induced hysteria. The electorate should advocate for criminal laws that expire or at least require redress after a designated timeframe. These laws must direct judges and prosecutors to be transparent in their sentencing and implement procedures that automatically expunge outdated records. 
The idea of giving a criminal law an expiration date is nothing new. John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1789 and argued, “One generation has no right to bind another.” He asserted, “Every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.” Jefferson responded, “A law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.”
While we have experimented with laws that expire - specifically in civil matters - we have not applied this principle to criminal laws. 
Why? 
What we are experiencing with our criminal justice system, particularly in cases where there exists no victim other than the state, is not justice, but persecution.
No better mechanism exists to guarantee that our criminal laws reflect the will of the people, than to set an expiration date. The forced evaluation and debate of a law, as to the elements that constitute a crime, appropriate sentencing guidelines, and alternatives to incarceration and probation, ensure our criminal justice system is less oppressive. 
A system that takes into consideration criminal laws that have proven ineffectual (prohibition is one such example) and need to be addressed or amended, is a system that truthfully pledges equal justice for all. Each new criminal law should be dissected after an initial four-year period. From that point forward, each law would expire after eight years. These changes would protect us from a government that seeks to exploit and imprison its citizens. Our criminal laws would no longer be the product of fearmongering politicians. 

FAILURE TO LEAD, LOCALLY
There are members of our community, elected officials in Newton County within the criminal justice system, who refuse to speak the words “criminal justice reform.” With reform comes reduced government control of its citizens, and by default, less power to abuse.  
We need a representative government with the guts to do the right thing and act, not when it is politically expedient or safe to do so, but when the public requires it. Their failure to lead speaks volumes about any motive for higher office and who they choose to serve.   
The sole function of the criminal justice system should not be profit gained through systemic exploitation. 

WHAT GOT US HERE (THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM)
Since the late 1960’s, the US has spent billions of dollars funding law enforcement that focused on policing and punishment, rather than addressing the social issues that are the basis for crime. States, like Georgia, enacted criminal laws that lengthened prison sentences for many crimes. 
In Georgia, as crime rates grew throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, legislators enacted laws that, with intent, entrapped people within the criminal justice system. The declared “war on drugs” in the 1980’s was the catalyst for the militarization of law enforcement and the heavy-handed policy of “mandatory minimum sentencing.” 
By 1995, a new prison opened every 15 days in the US.  
Our elected officials in Newton County, who work within the criminal justice system, are not an exception to these rules. To date, they maintain a delayed mindset as it relates to addressing the issues of high crime rates (Newton County consistently maintains a rate 2% higher than the national average) and the need for a discussion about local criminal justice reform (the elephant in the room). 

THE TRIAL TAX
Another alarming trend – to the detriment of a constitutionally protected right - in our criminal justice system, emerged with the boom of prison building in the 1990’s: The measured withdrawal of the jury trial. 
It was replaced with the plea bargain. 
94% of criminal cases at the state level are resolved through a plea bargain. Bear in mind, local prosecutors handle 95% of all US criminal cases. 
District Attorneys and prosecutors retain the authority to make decisions about what to charge the accused with, whether to proceed with prosecution, cut deals with witnesses, negotiate pleas, and dictate sentencing guidelines. They hold leverage to extract guilty pleas from defendants and reduce the number of cases that go to trial. 
This power incentivizes them to use authority more aggressively. Prosecutors can deploy unprincipled tactics, such as threatening a defendant with filing a more serious charge against them, one that would carry an increased rate of incarceration. This form of coercion can lead a defendant to prematurely enter a guilty plea. 
While only 1 in 40 felony cases results in a trial, prosecutors often seek higher sentences against those who exercise their constitutional right to trial. This is referred to as “the trial tax.”  Bringing the maximum possible charge has persuaded many defendants to plead guilty instead of going to trial (which is their constitutional right). 
The plea bargain has become the easiest row to hoe for a prosecutor. This is our criminal justice system’s new standard of judging guilt or innocence. It has replaced proof beyond reasonable doubt. 





THE ALCOVY JUDICIAL CIRCUIT
The superior court exercises criminal and civil jurisdiction within Newton and Walton Counties. Superior court judges preside over all felony trials, have exclusive jurisdiction over divorces and may correct errors made by limited jurisdiction courts. Superior Courts are organized into 10 Judicial Districts, comprised of 49 Judicial Circuits. Each county has its own Superior Court, though a judge may serve more than one county. A chief judge handles the administrative tasks for each circuit. Superior court judges are constitutional officers who are elected to four-year terms in circuit-wide nonpartisan elections. Certain vacancies that occur in superior court are filled by appointment of the Governor. The Alcovy Judicial Circuit is part of the Tenth Judicial District. (This information was taken directly from www.alcovycircuit.com)

THE PROSECUTOR TO JUDGE PIPELINE
There exists an unofficial prosecutor to judge pipeline within the AJC. A methodology that is problematic, coupled with a dated mindset. 
 John M. Ott
The District Attorney of the AJC from 1985 - 1990. Ott was appointed to the bench by Governor Joe Frank Harris (D) in 1990. Ott is currently the Chief Judge of the circuit and is responsible for all administrative matters. 
W. Kendall “Ken” Wynne, Jr.
The Chief ADA of the AJC from 1990 - 2000 and District Attorney (R) from 2001 – 2009. Wynne was appointed to the bench by Governor Sonny Perdue (R) in 2010. 
Layla H. Zon
The Chief ADA under Wynne from 2003 – 2010. After Wynne was appointed judge, Zon was named District Attorney by Governor Sonny Perdue (R). She holds that position presently and runs as a Republican. Zon is stepping down as DA and is a candidate for superior court judge within the AJC. 
Melanie M. Bell
A former law clerk for Ott and ex-Chief ADA under Zon from 2013 – 2017. Bell (R) is the current Chief Magistrate Judge for Newton County. 

THE CASE IN CHIEF 
Why the prosecutor to judge pipeline within the AJC is problematic, coupled with a dated mindset. 
The case in chief:
7 years ago, a 20-year-old female, along with two other individuals, were arrested by deputies with the Newton County Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff was Ezell Brown. As a group, they were found to be in possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, a misdemeanor, while inside a parked car in a neighborhood. Deputies located a joint inside the passenger compartment. Its value was less than $10. At the time, no one claimed ownership. All three were arrested and taken to the county jail. 
They were given citations, a court date, and bonded out a few hours later.
Jurisdiction for this case resided with the Newton County Probate Court. Newton County does not have a state court.
The standard penalty for the offense, if an individual wanted to enter a guilty plea: Pay the $600 fine outright. No probation or additional jail time is required. 
If an individual wanted to enter a guilty plea but could not pay the $600 fine in its entirety: They were placed on 12 months’ probation until the fine was paid in full. The probation company utilized was a private, for-profit company. During that time, the individual would be mandated to pay a $50 monthly probationary supervision fee and cover the $30 cost of random drug-screening. In theory, under this scenario, the total fine could increase to $1,560. No additional jail time is required, unless they violate their probation. 
The individual could request a bench trial before the probate judge.
The individual could request a jury trial in superior court. 
The female requested a jury trial. Her assertion was the marijuana was not hers. She acknowledged being in the car and smoking some of the joint, but the marijuana, according to her, was furnished by and belonged to, her co-defendants. 
Her case was tried in superior court before a jury of her peers. It lasted a few hours. She was represented by an attorney. The female was convicted and sentenced to 180 days confinement at the county jail, 6 months’ probation, and a $1000 fine. 
Present in the courtroom was her father. Upon hearing the sentence imposed, he spoke aloud, “All that for one joint.” His daughter would miss Thanksgiving and Christmas with her family. 
One of the members of the jury, while exiting the courtroom, turned to the father and said, “The state tied our hands, we had no choice but to convict.” 

IN PRINT  
The following week, The Covington News published the female’s name, address, and sentence in the Police Blotter section of the paper. 

JUSTICE SERVED 
Some have no issue with her sentence and refer to this case as justice served.  
This was persecution, not prosecution, enacted by government against a citizen, done in the name of the law, absent common sense. The involved government officials enjoy anonymity. They were not named in The Covington News. They hide behind procedure with abstruse statements like, “I took an oath to uphold the law.” They were positioned to make a difference in this young woman’s life, to intervene and demonstrate authentic leadership. Instead, they chose to do harm. 
The prosecutor was not blameworthy, they were forced to proceed with this case. It was handed to them, as a junior prosecutor, “for practice.” They were ordered to proceed by their supervisor. They were not permitted to offer pre-trial diversion, which could have averted this tragedy. The prosecutor no longer works in the criminal justice system. They work in civil law.  

THE OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM
The presiding judge was Wynne. He seeks reelection. 
The DA was Zon. She seeks your vote for judgeship within the AJC. Visit her website: www.laylazonforjudge.com. Nowhere will you find the words criminal justice reform (local or otherwise), nor has she spoken publicly about the need to do so. In a Covington News article dated 08/23/19, when speaking about other DA’s throughout Georgia who refuse to prosecute misdemeanor marijuana possession cases, Zon said, “She understands her colleagues across the state have different opinions on the matter.” Then added, “Cases involving marijuana, both misdemeanor and felony, unless it involves the sale, distribution or trafficking, that are handled by the DA's office are placed into a Pre-Trial Intervention Program if the individual has no criminal history. That way, first-time offenders arrested on charges of possession of marijuana are given the opportunity to have their charges dismissed and have no criminal history for employment purposes.”
The Chief ADA and prosecution supervisor was Bell. She seeks reelection. Bell has not spoken about the need for local criminal justice reform. Her office utilizes a private for-profit probation company (CSRA Probation Services, Inc.) to supervise its probationers. To include those under sentence for misdemeanor marijuana possession. 
The others in the room need to explain their actions. They seek our votes for reelection or higher office. 

180 DAYS
For 6 months the taxpayers of Newton County spent thousands of dollars housing, feeding, and providing any necessary medical care for the young woman. 
Jurors were ordered, under the threat of imprisonment, to be present that day and hear the case. If employed, they had to miss work. Lost income needed to pay bills or feed their family, be damned.  
The prosecutor was pulled from other duties for one week, in preparation for trial. Time that should have been spent investigating crimes with actual victims. 
All because one young woman momentarily held the leaves of a plant. 

THE CYCLE CONTINUES 
In 2019, the DA's Office in Newton County received over 100 cases for prosecution (requested jury trials) for misdemeanor marijuana possession. In Walton County, the DA's Office received over 110 cases.
These numbers do not include hundreds of other misdemeanor cases received by the Newton County Probate Court, Covington Municipal Court, Oxford Municipal Court, and Porterdale Municipal Court. All are limited jurisdiction courts. For example, the fine imposed by the Covington Municipal Court for possessing a misdemeanor amount of marijuana is over $1300. 
The ADA’s working for Zon in both her offices (in certain instances) still use sentencing guidelines approved by Wynne when he was DA nearly a decade ago. 

UCR  
The following data is Uniform Crime Reporting taken directly from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. It was reported by the Newton County Sheriff’s Office, Covington PD, Oxford PD, and Porterdale PD. 
Since 2013, the year this young woman was convicted and sentenced to serve 180 days in the county jail for possessing leaves from a plant, and 2017, the year the current UCR cycle ends, in Newton County there were: 
30 murders; 66 rapes; 249 robberies; 1,651 assaults; 3,307 burglaries; 7,987 larcenies; 1,188 cars stolen. 
During that timeframe, no one died from smoking marijuana or holding its leaves. 
Yet, we are told that prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana possession cases will make our community safer and is an efficient way to spend taxpayer resources.  

THE BOTTOM LINE
We must confront our elected officials and demand better judgement. Until we do, these atrocities will continue. Wasting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars annually prosecuting someone for possessing a plant, when there are serious issues to be addressed, is absurd. 
The ignorance displayed by our elected officials is not a matter of procedure, but choice. 
The next time you read the local police blotter and see someone convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession, remember, there were other people in the room. 

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