SCHR Hosts Symposium on the Criminalization of Race and Poverty

25th August, 2016

Atlanta, Georgia – On Tuesday, September 20, 2016, the Southern Center for Human Rights hosted a symposium, Decriminalizing Race and Poverty: What’s Working and What You Can Do

The symposium  explored important current issues facing the justice system, including race and policing, debtors’ prison practices, and implicit bias in the judiciary. Speakers and participants examined a range of solutions that seek to address these critical issues and build a better, more fair system. 

“The criminalization of race and poverty is a widespread problem across the country that is undermining public confidence in the courts,” said Sara Totonchi, Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Our symposium takes a bold, fresh look at these issues and recommend strategies to fulfill the promise of equal justice under law for all.” 

The keynote speaker for the symposium is Vanita Gupta, Head of the Civil Rights Division for the United States Department of Justice. Under her leadership, the Civil Rights Division has advanced criminal justice reform and constitutional policing, including investigating and working to reform police departments in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; Chicago; and many other cities. As the chief civil rights prosecutor for the United States, she also oversees a wide range of criminal and civil enforcement efforts to ensure equal justice and protect equal opportunity for all.  As part of that work, the department recently filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Walker v. City of Calhoun, a SCHR case challenging the constitutionality of the city’s bail system.  The department’s brief explains that bail practices that unfairly discriminate against the poor are unlawful.

Georgia leads the nation with the number of people whose lives have come into contact with the criminal justice system, with 1 in 12 Georgians under some form of correctional control, including prison, parole, and probation.  The state's addiction to incarceration is not a reflection of higher crime rates or a stronger commitment to public safety. To the contrary, incarceration is used in Georgia to avoid addressing the root causes of many crimes: drug addiction, mental illness, and poverty. 

Additional speakers for the symposium included: 

Honorable Bernice Donald, United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

Stephen B. Bright, President and Senior Counsel, Southern Center for Human Rights 

Councilman Kwanza Hall, Atlanta City Council, District 2

Ashley Nellis, Ph.D, Senior Research Analyst, The Sentencing Project

Sarah Geraghty, Managing Attorney, Southern Center for Human Rights

Marissa McCall Dodson, Policy Director, Southern Center for Human Rights

Mawuli Davis, Partner, The Davis Bozeman Law Firm 

Gerry Weber, Senior Attorney, Southern Center for Human Rights

Tiffany Williams Roberts, Managing Attorney, The Roberts Law Firm

Kamau Franklin, Attorney and Community Organizer

Tamika Middleton, Coordinator, Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective