Midterm elections could mean true criminal justice reform for Jefferson County

By LaTonya Tate, Soros Justice Fellow

With the election less than a week away, it is critical that we pay close attention to the Jefferson County district attorney’s race. Through their policies and practices, district attorneys exercise enormous power over our lives including who is charged, how they’re charged, whether they’ll have access to diversion or face jail time. For far too long, mass incarceration has plagued the lives of Alabamians, particularly those of color. As a community, we can’t afford to take this election lightly.

Across the country, and in Jefferson County, the war on drugs has devastated black and brown communities. It is one of the main drivers of mass incarceration and district attorneys are uniquely positioned to put an end to it, if they want to.

When DA candidate Danny Carr proposed moving away from seeking jail time for low level marijuana cases, District Attorney Mike Anderton, despite professing his support of diversion, made it clear that he would not use his discretion in that way. Although the law allows it, WBRC reported that Anderton disagrees with only fining people convicted of marijuana possession.

Anderton questioned, “How can we treat everyone the same if we pick and choose how we enforce the law?” The criminal justice system, especially in Alabama, has a long history of not treating everyone the same. There is a mountain of evidence showing that people of color accused of the same crime as their white counterparts, are policed more often, charged more severely, sentenced more harshly, and are therefore more likely to be wrongfully convicted. Blindly enforcing laws will only perpetuate these disparities.

Just this month, Alabama Appleseed and Southern Poverty Law Center released a report showing that in Alabama, black people are four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession although they use the drug at the same rate. District attorneys are tasked with seeking justice and justice demands an end to the war on drugs.

Jefferson County deserves a district attorney who recognizes that minimizing the penalties for drug offenses that for decades have been disproportionately ravaging black communities, is not “special treatment” but merely a step in the right direction.

As a former Probation and Parole Officer, for nearly a decade with the Florida Department of Corrections, I witnessed firsthand the ongoing impact of harsh drug prosecutions and the improper criminalization of a public health crisis. Individuals struggling with addiction were routinely sent to prison for technical violations of probation and parole.

District attorney elections are our best opportunity to shape the future of criminal justice in Jefferson County. On November 6, when Jefferson County residents head to the polls to elect the next district attorney, we can demand that the new district attorney look at the disproportionate impact that drug prosecutions have had and decide that it’s time to put a stop to the war on drugs. We can demand that he appreciates the flaws and biases in the criminal justice system and refuses to push to perpetuate them. We can demand true justice.

Photo: Michelle Frankfurter/ACLU