Finding Hope in the Criminal Justice System

Originally published on AL.com

By Stephanie Hicks, Administrative Director of the Offender Alumni Association

Our nation is in the midst of bleak times. We see crying children separated from parents at the border, the homeless population is growing, students feel unsafe at their schools, people unable to afford healthcare, and the list goes on. In Jefferson County, our community struggles with high incarceration rates.

It was here, in Birmingham, where Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his famous letter from the Birmingham jail appealing to the hearts of men, noting that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." In the spring of 1963, activists in Birmingham, Alabama launched one of the most influential campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement: Project C, better known as The Birmingham Campaign.  

President John F. Kennedy would later say, "The events in Birmingham... have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them." Yet, in 2017, Anthony Ray Hinton was released from prison after spending 30 years on Alabama's death row for a crime he did not commit. Although we are weary, our fight for justice continues.

We have an opportunity to improve our community through the election of the next district attorney in Jefferson County. Many are unaware of the power and influence held by the district attorney: yet he alone can commit to ending the over-incarceration of our neighbors, and take on the racial disparities in the system.

My life as a former offender began 2016 after serving a 6-month federal prison sentence. My transition and adjustment to life after incarceration was a challenging experience. As the Administrative Director of the Offender Alumni Association (OAA), I see law-abiding citizens striving to attain opportunities for a second chance to become productive members of society.

I have yet to meet anyone who desires to return to prison. Many individuals, including former offenders, are trapped in a criminal justice system that criminalizes poverty. We need a district attorney who is community centered and believes in extending desperately needed lifelines in the form of second chances.  

One who will not prosecute crimes of poverty, will decline requests for imposition of fines and fees the accused has no hope of paying, and will not require conditions defendants cannot afford. We need a district attorney who believes in people.

The district attorney should be a proponent of the accused receiving a fair trial. Criminal cases should not be treated like sport games where the humanity of the defendant is forgotten or disregarded.  It is our responsibility to hold our district attorney accountable to the values our highly regarded Lady Justice represents: balanced scales of impartiality and obligation to the rule of law, unsheathed sword symbolizing transparent enforcement of the law, lastly the blindfold represents the impartial and objective application of the law; which does not allow outside factors, such as politics, wealth or fame, influence its decisions.  Therefore, our fight is ongoing.

In November, Jefferson County will elect our next district attorney. Should it be Mike Anderton or Danny Carr? The citizens of Jefferson County will decide. We cannot lose sight of our responsibility to elect someone who will represent our county fairly.  

Our district attorney should carry out the duties of the office not forgetting the least of these, the invisible former offenders, and the working and unemployed poor. Again, the country's plight seems overwhelming at times nonetheless we have an opportunity to elect someone locally who will make the right decisions on issues that matter to us. So, let's get to work Jefferson County because our fight continues.

Photo: Mark Wallheiser / ACLU