Church fund helps end 9-year probation

No more in bondage shall they toil;
Let my people go!
Let them come out of Egypt’s spoil;
Let my people go!
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land.
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go!

– traditional African American Spiritual

By Steve Williams

On Wednesday, May 19, Joshua J. appeared in Superior Court before Judge Patrick Haggard, cuffed and shackled, and attired in a bright orange jail jumpsuit. He’d been locked up for one month, having been arrested and jailed for allegedly violating the terms of his felony probation. Eight years ago, Mr. J. plead guilty to robbery by intimidation and was sentenced to two years in prison to be followed by eight years of probation. He was also ordered to pay restitution to the victim of his criminal offense.

Since 2014, when he was released from prison and began serving his probated sentence, Mr. J. had not once been arrested on a probation violation. Then, in April 2021, he was stopped by police and charged with having “no driver’s license on person.” The cops found out that he’d not provided his probation officer with a change of address (a requirement of his probation), nor had he paid the restitution he still owed to the victim of his 2012 offense. That amount totaled $398.33. 

Because he had an outstanding probation warrant, the officers who charged Mr. J. with the misdemeanor offense of “no license on person” arrested and brought him to the Clarke County jail. And there he sat for one month.

As we regularly do, John Cole Vodicka and I were observing in Superior Court Judge Haggard’s courtroom on Wednesday morning. Sitting on the opposite side of the gallery from us were a dozen chained prisoners. Joshua J. was among them. 

Eventually, Mr. J.’s name was called and he shuffled the 20 feet to the defense table and sat down next to his public defender. His lawyer, Phil Clark, told the judge that he and his client had reached an agreement with the district attorney’s office and that Mr. J. would admit to the alleged probation violations. Under the terms of the agreement, an admission to the violations would result in his being released from jail later that day and to serve out the remainder of his probation.

Judge Haggard asked how much longer Joshua J. was tethered to his probation sentence and was informed that the defendant had one year, two months and 12 days left to serve. Judge Haggard found that the admission had been “knowing and voluntarily” made, and accepted the terms of the agreement. Mr. J. rose to his feet, received a pat on the back from his lawyer, and hobbled back to his assigned seat in the gallery.

Up to this point, Joshua J.’s hearing had unfolded as hundreds of them mostly do: It was efficiently handled and unremarkable in the paucity of detail about the defendant’s history since he his arrest and two-year imprisonment nearly nine years ago. But on this Wednesday morning, departing from script, Judge Haggard reminded the prosecution and defense that the case had originated in 2012, and that the record showed Mr. J. had successfully navigated his probation for many years. He was in front of the judge now not because he had committed a new felony criminal offense, but had merely violated the “technical” terms of his long probation sentence. The judge noted how exceptional that was and even congratulated Mr. J. on his efforts. Judge Haggard wished the 33-year-old African American defendant “good luck” as he completed the 14 months still left on his sentence.

Thankfully, Joshua J.’s day in court didn’t end as he was being transported back to our jail. 
I spoke with P.O. Hunter and defense attorney Clark at the end of that morning’s court proceedings. I let them both know that Oconee Street United Methodist Church had established a community bail initiative, and in partnership with the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, was able to provide monetary resources to indigent defendants who could not “pay their way” (bond) out of jail or, as in Joshua J.’s situation, could not gain their complete freedom because of money owed as a result of a court’s sentencing order.

Drawing from the OSUMC’s bail initiative bank account, I obtained a postal money order for $398.33. I drove to the Georgia Probation Services field office on Old Epps Bridge Rd. and handed them the money order. By 4 p.m. on Wednesday, a little more than four hours after Joshua J. appeared in Superior Court, the restitution he still owed in his case had been paid in full. Once the transaction was officially recorded, Mr. J. would be completely out from under our criminal legal system!

What happened in Joshua J.’s case on Wednesday had a relatively satisfactory ending. But really, none of us should be truly “satisfied” when someone has been made to navigate “Probationland” – living with the threat of imprisonment hanging over their head – for eight or nine years. And there can be nothing satisfactory when someone spends a month or more in jail for what were administrative, not criminal actions.

Unfortunately, there is nothing unusual about such lengthy probationary sentences. Georgia ranks No. 1 in the nation with its use of probation as punishment. For many here in Athens-Clarke County, lengthy probationary sentences become a revolving door, shuttling the probationer back and forth between jail, prison, court hearings and probation. The fact that Joshua J. had somehow stepped outside of the revolving door made his case exceptional in Judge Haggard’s mind. Mr. J. had gone almost nine years with never having to endure a probation revocation proceeding. 

PBS has been airing a documentary series called “Philly DA.” It closely chronicles the first term of District Attorney Larry Krasner, elected in 2018 as one of the first big city “progressive” prosecutors. I encourage us all to watch it. One of the most recent episodes of “Philly DA” deals with the insidious perils of long term probation and the possibility of envisioning something different. In Philadelphia, DA Krasner instituted a program reviewing the overly-harsh probation sentences his prosecutors’ inherited from the previous State’s attorney.The Philly DA’s office is taking these cases back to court and seeking reductions or terminations of probation where deemed appropriate.  

Deborah Gonzalez, our Western Judicial Circuit DA, is also determined to examine and offer alternatives to what has been the common practice sentencing defendants to long-term probation, particularly because it has typically targeted the African American community. We need to support any and all efforts being made to reduce the use of lengthy, “revolving-door” probation in our community.

Steve Williams is a member of Oconee Street UMC and one of the principal Court Watch participants.