Black women deliver justice in a Southern city. Their own way.

"We have broken the mold for women as much as we have broken the mold for African-Americans," said LaDawn Blackett Jones, the solicitor in South Fulton, Georgia.
Tiffany Carter Sellers, center, chief judge; LaDawn Blackett Jones, left, the city's prosecutor; and Viveca Powell, public defender, front row, third from left, are among the black women in charge of the criminal justice system in South Fulton, Georgia.
Tiffany Carter Sellers, center, chief judge; LaDawn Blackett Jones, left, the city's prosecutor; and Viveca Powell, public defender, front row, third from left, are among the black women in charge of the criminal justice system in South Fulton, Georgia.Reginald Duncan / @cranium.art

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By Dartunorro Clark

SOUTH FULTON, Ga.— Inside the municipal courtroom here in this Atlanta suburb, a black man in his early 20s is begging the judge for a second chance.

He's facing his third shoplifting conviction and, under Georgia state law, must serve a jail sentence.

Defendants plead for a second (or third) chance in courtrooms across the country on a daily basis, but here in this majority African-American town, where the population is just over 100,000, the criminal justice system is unique: Black women are in charge, and they say they run things differently.

LaDawn Blackett Jones is the city's solicitor, or prosecutor, Viveca Powell serves as public defender and Tiffany Carter Sellers is the chief judge. The court clerks and staff are also black women.

"As people from around the country are looking at what is going on here, we are trying to set the example for the way true law and justice should work," Blackett Jones said.

South Fulton only became incorporated as a city two years ago and has been up and running for about year. It has received praise for its approach to criminal justice, which includes balancing enforcing the law with compassion.

The young man here pleading for mercy is the latest case testing that philosophy.

As a black woman and a judge, Carter Sellers told NBC News she can be tough on crime while at the same time give a fairer shake to defendants, depending on the circumstances.

Judge Tiffany Carter SellersReginald Duncan / @cranium.art

"From a practical standpoint, I think I bring that fact that I'm a wife to an African-American man, and we have African-American children, and so empathy and sympathy — I bring that to the table every day," she said, adding that she cringes when she hears people talk about racial bias and corruption in the justice system.

"I know we can do better. In 2018, we just can do better."

'We’re not sprinkling magic dust'

In South Fulton, there's a focus on honing a community-oriented court. Pamphlets are distributed to residents informing them of their rights. And Carter Sellers takes care to ensure that everyone who comes before her understands the plea process and courtroom procedures during each session, even if they've heard it before.

A big part of their court system is its pre-trial diversion program, which offers a clean record to low-level offenders who successfully complete community work or counseling. Under the program, a resident could be sentenced to community service, write an essay, attend a city council meeting or parenting/anger management classes in lieu of jail time or costly fines.

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To date, 46 people have successfully completed the program and dozens more are currently participating. There's also the town's "green team," which allows residents who can't pay fines to clean up city parks for $15 an hour.

Blackett Jones, the city's prosecutor, created the program, visiting courts across the country, including in California and New York, to learn the "best practices" to form their own program in South Fulton.

"We're not sprinkling magic dust anywhere to make magic happen, but we are cognizant of where we are in America today, so that means that there's still police brutality,” said Blackett Jones. "And even if that's not going on in South Fulton, we recognize that the people that come in our courtroom know that it's out there."

LaDawn Blackett Jones, the city solicitor.Reginald Duncan / @cranium.art

Carter Sellers, the judge, said that she hopes their policies will teach residents to respect the community, understand the law and trust the criminal justice process.

"The court does have a role in repairing relationships that have been broken in the community," she said.

South Fulton, which was a previously unincorporated part of Fulton County, gained cityhood in November 2016 after a decade-long push in the state legislature. Many of the women were hired or appointed to their positions by the mayor or the city council, and it was by chance, not intention, that each was a black woman.

The town is 89 percent black and experts believe it to be the only town of its size with black women overwhelmingly running the criminal justice system. Bill Edwards, the mayor, is black, as are Keith Meadows, the police chief, and the seven city council members — and five of them are women.

Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, said that having black women lead the town's court system is significant in two ways.

"African-American women usually play critical roles, and they haven't always been acknowledged," Gillespie said. "What's unique about his moment is that black women are getting that recognition."

Gillespie added that having African-Americans in top government roles in a majority African-American city "can legitimize institutions in the mind of citizens."

Blackett Jones, a native of the unincorporated area of South Fulton, said the city has torn down barriers not only for African-Americans, but for women as well.

"Think about how many cities in America that are predominantly any one group, but are still run at all the top levels by heterosexual white Christian males," she said. "This is an American story. This is not just a black story, this is a woman's story. We have broken the mold for women as much as we have broken the mold for African-Americans."

Powell, the public defender, said having black women at the wheel is helpful because "it eliminates the cultural gap" when dealing with African-American defendants.

"I look at people as people and I expect fairness from everybody," said Powell, who has served as a criminal defense lawyer for 35 years. "But we clearly understand the dynamic of what goes on in the community —nobody has to explain it to us."

Viveca Famber Powell, public defender. Reginald Duncan / @cranium.art

However, Powell said she is not celebrating just yet.

"What's here today can be gone tomorrow," she said. "We need to do the work, we need to do the job and leave a legacy of a job well done."

Carter Sellers said she was "extremely proud" of the black women running the justice systems, but that was not her goal when she built her court from scratch.

"I'm amazed that it's 2018 and it's never happened before," she said. "But I just think that African-American women have this history of taking care of everybody else, right? And so often our own success is put to the wayside to take care of everybody else, so I'm obviously just very, very proud.

"The fact that we're all African-American women doing it is great, but my goal was always to embody a court of best practices and hope that we serve as a model for other courts, because I think if we do that then that's how you change the criminal justice system," Carter Sellers continued. "People think that when African-Americans are in charge of the criminal justice system we somehow are light on crime. I think that the people in South Fulton know that we are not light on crime."

Back in the courtroom, Carter Sellers administers justice in the best way she can to the young, black man facing jail time for shoplifting.

He asks for another chance, explaining that he stole food because he was hungry at the time but now has a job.

But Carter Sellers says that her hands are tied, then reads the Georgia statute on shoplifting and explains she has to give him 30 days in jail.

"I don't want you to think I'm not sympathetic," she said. "I want to help you, but I can't."

The judge, however, does what little she can by knocking a day off his sentence for the time he spent sitting in court and orders him to turn himself in the next day.

"If you don't show up, it will be 60 days," Carter Sellers said. "And if I have to issue a warrant, it'll be more."