SOUTH FULTON, GEORGIA — A small city in Georgia recently found itself with the unique responsibility of building a government and a justice system from scratch.
The brand new city of 100,000 residents — 90 percent of whom are black — broke off from greater Fulton County two years ago, taking the new name of South Fulton. One of the first things they did was build a justice system founded on the progressive, rehabilitative principles reflected in the community.
The new system looks like the community, too. In the end — and almost by accident — they started a branch of government entirely run by eight black women.
These eight women run everything from sentencing to probation at a time when minority and women candidates are upending political norms across the country. And as Georgia’s own Stacey Abrams stands to potentially become the first black female governor in the nation, South Fulton provides a case study in how having progressive, black women in charge can create meaningful difference in the outcomes of justice.
In Judge Tiffany Sellers’ South Fulton courtroom, for example, there is a deliberate culture of verbal respect and patience for defendants and their families. Judge Sellers calls everyone “Sir” or “Miss.” She patiently explains and repeats the meaning of every legal term, and proactively tries to work around the financial circumstances of the people in her courtroom.
The city's public defender, Viveca Powell, is always physically available to defendants who may need her in court, and, unlike many cities, South Fulton doesn’t hit defendants with part of the bill for her representation later.
And South Fulton's solicitor, LaDawn Jones, is not your stereotypical, conviction-focused prosecutor. Jones runs a diversion program that is designed to reduce or eliminate some offenders’ charges in exchange for community service, voter registration, written assignments, or attendance at city council meetings.
VICE News went to South Fulton to see what it means to start a city from the ground up — and whether the experiment can work in the long term.
This segment originally aired August 30, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.