At a Nov. 3 luncheon, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton and Chick-fil-A executive Rodney Bullard said that solving criminal justice problems should start with juveniles before they head down the wrong path in life.
Leadership Sandy Springs hosted the “Equity in Justice” discussion, which shared stories of how at-risk youth can succeed in school and life. Georgia Supreme Court Justice Shawn LaGrua was the moderator.
Melton served on the Georgia Supreme Court for 16 years as a justice, retiring in 2021. He now works as a partner with Troutman Pepper.
The community seems to wait for people to commit crimes and then point fingers at the criminal justice system for causes and solutions, he said.
“You’ve lived your life in this brokenness, in this disarray, this confusion. And now the criminal justice system is trying to retrofit that with adults. So the question is, what should we be doing instead?” Melton said.
Now, the talk centers on social justice, he said.
“When we look out and see these statistics grow in our particular neighborhoods in our community, when we see kids that are growing up without a mother … or the fathers often aren’t even involved. That’s a hard thing to talk about, but that is happening,” he said.
When Bullard, who serves as head of corporate social responsibility for Chick-fil-A and as executive director of the Chick-fil-A Foundation, worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta, he said equity was always on his mind.
“We went to court, and we saw the defendants in many cases who had as many difficulties as the community around them,” he said.
U.S. Attorney Sally Yates asked him to start a community affairs program centered around recidivism because they knew within three years 75% of those people who had been arrested and jailed would be back behind bars. When he pulled aside one of the folks in the program to see how it was going, that man told Bullard he couldn’t write.
“And I recognized at that point that we have a problem that extends long before we get to the courtroom. We have a problem of equality. We have a problem about opportunity,” he said.
The right response from the community must be more engagement, Melton said. If that doesn’t happen, the numbers will continue to show criminal activity happening. “If we don’t get involved early on, I don’t think we’re going to see the kind of change that we all say we want,” he said.
Georgia has done a remarkable job taking the lead across the nation in criminal justice reform, Melton said. Every Judicial Circuit has some form of an accountability court such as mental health or drug and DUI courts that try to get to the underlying issue involved.
These accountability courts are cheaper than prison and have better results with a decrease in recidivism, he said.
“And you’re keeping the household intact because when an individual goes off to prison, that person is no longer available, the brother, the father and mother who has otherwise been in the house babysitting or taking somebody to school or whatever activity,” Melton said.
Bullard said he’s proud of one of the projects in which Chick-fil-A has been involved, the At-Promise Youth and Community Centers in Atlanta. They take youth who have been in the justice system and are at risk of being lifelong inhabitants of it. Services include counseling and education.
The numbers are remarkable with 90 percent of them no longer in the juvenile justice system, he said.
“So we’re getting them out. We see that these problems really started at an early age, and we can help someone at an early age and that is wonderful,” Bullard said.
How to recruit and retain police officers
LaGrua, a Supreme Court justice, asked what can be done to recruit and retain officers.
Melton said the spiking crime rate and the corresponding morale drop within the police force is a multifaceted problem that doesn’t have a silver bullet solution.
“We talked about accountability of the police officers, but we also have to talk about the importance of training. We don’t want a less professional police force. What we want is a police force that is better trained in de-escalation, better trained in use of force,” he said.
Professional mental health consultants might need to be at the officers’ side, he said. The officers also need to know the community supports them.
“I love the community engagement approach. I think that solves a multitude of problems, because life is about relationships,” Melton said.
“My answer may be a little bit controversial, but I think teachers and policemen are woefully underpaid,” Bullard said.