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Community leaders seek to break cycle of crime's heavy cost
Newtown Florist Club meeting discusses reform of modern debtors prisons
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Rose Johnson marks off items on a list as members of a panel speak Thursday night as the Newtown Florist Club hosts a community meeting at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Fines and fees resulting from misdemeanor traffic and probation violations has led the U.S. Justice Department to warn local courts about the emergence of so-called “debtors’ prisons.”

“Individuals may confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape,” reads a Justice Department memo from March.

A community meeting in Gainesville last week convened by the local Newtown Florist Club civil rights organization gathered Hall County judges, criminal defense attorneys, public defenders and law enforcement officials to define the issue locally and pointedly address where reform can be made.

Arturo Corso, a criminal defense attorney in Gainesville, said two areas for review should be the prospect of holding court hearings before an arrest is made for an alleged probation violation, and giving more discretion to judges in setting bail amounts.

Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin said she too is concerned about how bail amounts established by state law can be overly prohibitive.

Drug and mental health courts, as well as pre-trial diversion programs, can be effective in giving people a second chance without facing a financial breaking point.

“Sometimes we don’t think about the cost of the alternatives,” Gosselin said.

Those in attendance agreed that Hall County has made significant progress in recent years to focus more on rehabilitation than punishment for nonviolent offenders.

“It’s important for us to realize how hard it was to convince people in Georgia that it is a better idea to send someone to get drug and alcohol counseling than put them in jail,” Rose Priddy, an assistant public defender in Hall, said.

But recent reforms have helped avoid some of the unconstitutional pitfalls other jurisdictions, reprimanded by the Justice Department, are climbing out of.

For example, courts should establish an individual’s ability to pay before incarceration is an option, and consider alternatives to jail, such as |community service.

And courts cannot condition hearings on pre-payment of fines or fees.

“I think we could easily correct some of these things,” Corso said of obstacles that remain.

The reform, however, goes beyond the courts and into the community, said Jerry Castleberry, a longtime community advocate and Gainesville city schools transportation director. He said job opportunities and other services are needed for offenders when they are released.

It’s the recidivism in the community that residents want to see halted.

Through the Newtown Florist Club’s criminal justice reform project, executive director Rose Johnson said the organization will be convening street interviews to learn about how the inability to pay court fines and fees affects to those in low-income and minority communities,

Johnson said this would include involving representatives from the Gainesville municipal court.

Ultimately, Johnson wants to convene other communities in Northeast Georgia to share information about the success of local reforms and help identify where reforms are needed in other communities.

“Hall County courts appear to be a progressive judicial system sensitive to debtors’ prison issues,” Johnson said.

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