Eggs steaming. Coffee lukewarm. Biscuits and gravy. All signs pointed to an authentic community forum underway.
Last Saturday, inside the white-painted auditorium of the West Broad Street YMCA, more than two dozen Savannah residents gathered to hear a panel of criminal justice experts over breakfast.
I was among those gathered for The Hungry Club Forum of Savannah, modeled on Atlanta’s historic monthly forums, to hear Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones, Circuit Public Defender Todd Martin, Recorder’s Court Judge Joe Huffman, Sheriff John Wilcher, advocate Fred Green and attorney Nancy DeVetter.
I also wanted to know what questions Savannah residents had for these arbiters of criminal justice.
Lackluster data culture
Martin wore a dark suit, sported a thick beard with slicked-back hair and frequently used the word “allegedly”.
With 18 years experience in Chatham County’s public defender’s office, Martin spoke with a passion for protecting people’s rights, instead of obsessing over a person’s involvement in a crime.
Responding to a question about transparency in data about court cases, Martin, who is a member of the mayor’s committee for justice reform, says access to information is a significant issue in Savannah
“When we started trying to figure out what’s really going on, the data’s not there. No one keeps up with it. So the question is why? Well, there’s not enough people demanding it,” he said.
Martin’s call to action: “Call your county commissioner and call your city council. Man, I’m serious … how can we solve a problem if we don’t even know what the problem may be?”
Transparency, please and thank you
DA Jones, tall and a confident speaker, hit her stride when talking about “smart prosecution” in favor of Georgia’s propensity for incarceration and advocating for Savannahians who return from prison and need work.
A citizen stood up, identified herself as Jenny Parker and asked the DA and other panelists about “what specifically does your agency already do to be more transparent?”
What Parker failed to mention was that she used to work for Jones and is currently running for DA in 2024. As of Wednesday, Jones has not filed paperwork indicating she will run for re-election.
Data and transparency is lacking at the DA’s office. Besides an annual report (which is more than a year out of date), her agency has done little in the way of releasing data on court outcomes. Most of that has come from news reports, which mainly focus on her low murder conviction rates. She argued at the forum that convictions alone are not metrics worth concentrating on.
At the forum, she implied to constituents that she didn’t have the funding to gather and publish appropriate court data since taking office in 2021.
“Talk to your local legislators and advocate that our system make an investment in the type of technology that will allow us to measure decent outcomes and prosecute cases based on data,” Jones told audience members.
Sheriff Wilcher, mustached, 78 years young, and the most prominent Republican on the panel, was blunt. Older crowd members cheered his no-nonsense approach.
He attributed crime these days to a drop off in traditional family values and hard work ethic.
“That’s what we need to do with our young generation today. They’re not entitled to anything. We don’t owe them anything and they have to earn stuff,” said Wilcher, a 40-year law enforcement veteran.
At the same time, Wilcher shared a policy prescription for homelessness that is more progressive than some other law enforcement officials. He said he does not accept people experiencing homelessness into jail if they face minor charges or struggling with mental health. He helps them get a recognizance bond to be released.
Wilcher said it makes no sense to jail homeless individuals whose only crime is taking food because they don’t have any or acting disorderly because of mental health problems.
The goal is to “get them back on their medication again,” Wilcher said, “and they become productive citizens and community members.”
Forum sparks interest
Despite the advertised 11:30 a.m. stopping point, the forum lingered on. Panelists and crowd members alike trickled out slowly, full up from eggs and conversation. Some went directly for the bathroom and some stuck around for the raffle drawing.
But for others, the forum sparked more questions and ideas. Those audience members turned engaged citizens flagged down their DA, their judge or their public defender for some final words.