“Tough on crime” rhetoric – especially when it comes to perceived threats against our nation’s children – has been a political focal point in recent years. Local prosecutors and law enforcement agencies are often judged by how many convictions they can score, especially in cases that involve potential harm to a child. This undercurrent in our criminal justice system, instead of promoting public safety, too often serves to compound already tragic events, as was the case recently with a mother and her young child in Georgia.
Radley Balko’s illuminating column for the Huffington Post sheds some light on the situation: in April 2010, Raquel Nelson, a young black mother, was crossing a street in Marietta, Georgia with her four-year-old son A.J. and her two daughters. The family relied on the public buses for transportation, as she doesn’t own a car. Her regular bus stop sits nearly a third of a mile from the nearest intersection, so, like most of the people that frequent that particular stop, she decided to cross the road before she reached the intersection so she could return more quickly to her apartment complex. However, when she and her son reached the median, A.J. suddenly broke free of his mother’s hand and darted into traffic, where he met his tragic death.
The driver that struck A.J. admitted that he had been drinking and took painkillers before getting behind the wheel. After being charged with three crimes, he was convicted of hit-and-run and served a mere six months in prison before he was released in October 2010. After the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an article on the dangers of jaywalking, the state Solicitor General Barry Morgan decided to charge Nelson with three crimes, including homicide by vehicle. Nelson, who will be sentenced tomorrow, faces up to three years in prison.
The state’s decision to prosecute Nelson is a microcosm of a number of things wrong with our current justice priorities: a reliance on incarceration and punishment in response to highly publicized tragic events, needless prosecutions to give an impression of being tough on crime, and reliance on jurors not composed of a defendants’ peers.
Nelson was convicted by an all-white jury. The jury was comprised of individuals who virtually never used public transportation in the area and may not have understood that crossing the street at that particular bus stop was a virtual necessity for the residents in that neighborhood. This case is especially salient as the incident took place in Cobb County, which has a history of disturbing and serious racial discrimination.
It is hard to imagine much rehabilitation or public safety benefit from prosecuting a grieving mother who watched her son get run over by a car, even though she had him in her grip moments before. Even those who look at the criminal justice system primarily as a vehicle to punish and express anger should be unsettled by this prosecution, as public outrage is directed at the hit-and-run driver. Nelson now fears that she will be separated from her children for years, which she expressed during an interview this morning on NBC’s The Today Show.
A petition circulating widely online calling for the overturning of Nelson’s conviction has gained nearly 100,000 signatures. Hopefully, this will send a message to both the sentencing judge and the Solicitor General’s office that prosecuting victims of tragic events in the name of safety doesn’t comport with the public’s fundamental ideas about the function of criminal justice.