DID YOU KNOW that half the state of Georgia is in some form of correctional work?
How about the fact that, currently, 60 percent of people held in Chatham County jails are in pretrial detention, meaning they simply can’t afford to post bail?
For those who are familiar with the criminal justice system, this might not be anything new. But Darby Cox of Reform Georgia is finding that people inside the system are affected by it in ways those outside the system can’t even fathom.
“I think that once we start talking to people, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea this was happening to people. This is happening to people I care about, and I recognize that,’” says Cox.
As part of National Expungement Week, Reform Georgia has partnered with Open Savannah and others to host National Day of Civic Hacking this Saturday, Sep. 21.
The event features lawyers, HR experts and others who can help those affected by the justice system find employment, which can be incredibly difficult.
“We’re trying to bring awareness about what the problems with our criminal justice system are, how people are affected by our criminal justice system, how people get reintegrated into society after they’ve been affected by our criminal justice system,” explains Cox. “We want to raise awareness of what that process looks like, and this particular event in Savannah is focused on tips and tricks for people finding employment.”
Cox, also cofounder of Smoke Cartel, began Reform Georgia about a year ago with Maxwell Ruppersburg, who she knew through the cannabis industry. Right away, the organization was able to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of cannabis, which gained them a lot of traction and support.
“The cannabis part is a big part to us. We do want to decriminalize [possession], because Georgia has laws that allow us to do that,” says Cox, “but we also believe in no-cost communications for prisons. The Georgia communication system made $5 million in kickbacks this year alone. We don’t think that’s necessarily fair. We also don’t think you should put kids in jail with adults. I don’t lie that the system is unfair depending on your income status or how well you can negotiate it. Our system should not be based on who can pay their way out.”
One of the problems Cox sees is a lack of trust in the system.
“I think that people are really afraid of what sources they can trust,” says Cox. “It’s just not clear. Can I trust the police? Can I trust the legal system? Who do I trust, then? It’s not accessible.”
Currently in Georgia, the expungement process isn’t connected to the process of reporting criminal records to HR professionals, further leading to distrust. As Cox lays out, there’s no back measure in the reporting process, so the HR professional could be repeatedly receiving an incorrect criminal record.
Factor in the discrimination that ex-offenders face in the hiring process, and it becomes clear that the structure of the criminal justice system in Georgia is fundamentally flawed.
“There’s no way that the people who are implementing these rules and keeping these practices alive don’t understand that,” says Cox.
Circling back to the statistic on pretrial detention, Cox points out that those being held haven’t even been convicted of a crime yet, meaning they could potentially be innocent.
“That’s just people who are being affected by the system that don’t necessarily need to be,” she says. “How many of those people are actually totally innocent? How many of them have been exposed to offenders who can cause them to commit crimes when that’s not what they would have done? Think of all the things that can happen to those people then. Even if it was a mistake, even if it was something small, I don’t think that’s what we want in our society for people. It’s an extreme form of punishment that I don’t think creates the type of people we want around us.”
Another of Reform Georgia’s big issues is no-cost communication for jails.
“It costs money to call in and call out,” Cox says. “You’ve already lost your job, you can’t provide for your family, you’re incarcerated, and now you can’t talk to them? When we limit social communication like that, when we cut people off from their families, we aren’t giving them anything to hope for. We aren’t giving them any reason not to get better or want to improve.”
That mentality leads to a defeatist attitude for so many affected by the criminal justice system.
“I think people feel a lot of defeat right now,” Cox says. “‘Oh, I’m in Georgia, it’s a Republican place, I can’t really do anything.’ The thing about that is that a lot of the time, they have a lot of loopholes in their laws where citizens can change the law. It’s just about knowing. That’s why we did [decriminalization] in Georgia—this is a city issue. Cities get to decide.”
Saturday’s event comes right before Reform Georgia’s board plans their next steps.
“We’re going to continue to lobby for decriminalization in Georgia until we’re entirely decriminalized,” says Cox. “That would be incredible. We would also really like to start making progress on some better rules for prison and seeing what we can do there. We really are strict on no-cost communication. We’d like to end cash bail, whether or not we have the ability to do that in the next year.”