"I saw a sea of young people who were charged as first-time felons, and I thought there's got to be some other way because if they take a plea, they’ve impacted their ability to earn.."
A regular installment about race and money in America, from the authors of "The Black Dollar"
Good morning. Before diving into this week’s edition, we’d like to share some news: we are co-teaching an M.B.A. course at Yale University called “Race and Money in America, Contemporary Business Applications.”
Like this newsletter, the course is an opportunity for us to add to the conversation around the racial wealth gap as we are writing our book. We hope our teaching will inspire and equip future business leaders to lead inclusively as they head back into the workplace.
The Yale School of Management Insights Magazine featured an interview with us about the course and our research this week.
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As we interview people about moments in their lives that affected their financial picture, the court system frequently comes up. We have been interviewing some judges about how they view race and money.
Today, we share parts of a conversation Louise had with Judge Asha Jackson, the chief judge of the Superior Court in DeKalb County, which includes the east side of Atlanta. Judge Jackson oversees civil, criminal and domestic cases and has a personal passion for finding new ways to help break the cycle of repeat convictions. Prior to becoming a judge, she worked in commercial litigation.
Louise: As we’ve interviewed Black Americans across a spectrum of income levels, we have found many people have a tie to someone who has spent time in jail. They have highlighted that jail time as being a major set-back financially for their loved ones. You have a program you've been setting up to try to keep people out of prison. Where did you get the idea from, and how that's going?
Asha: My program is called Project Pinnacle. Pinnacle, meaning the highest point one can achieve.
I was a commercial litigator at a large law firm when I was tapped to fill the position of my predecessor, the judge on the bench. I don't do criminal work, but then I get appointed to the bench. The business people like me, of course, because they’re like, ‘well, she's going to understand and get our issues.’
But I grew up in southwest Atlanta, and I know what happens to people in challenging socioeconomic situations. So I am sort of right in the center of all of this. And I do felony (cases). I have a first-time nonviolent felonies as well. The shoplifting, the possession charges, not distribution or sale, but possession because of how it's packaged or maybe the amount of the marijuana is now not a misdemeanor, it's a felony.
And I looked out, and I saw a sea of young people who were charged as first-time felons, and I thought there's got to be some other way because if they take a plea, they’ve impacted their ability to earn and be valuable citizens because of this, now, stain on their record.
And so that is the genesis of how I started Project Pinnacle. I said I would use my own resources, having been a litigator and having represented corporations and companies and schools and individuals. I would go to them myself and set up my own resources. I work intensively supervising 20 young people between the ages of 17 and twenty. I've now had 10 graduating groups. About 200 people.
Louise: And so the people in Project Pinnacle don't go to jail at all?
Asha: It's evolved. When I started, I convinced the D.A. to let them plead guilty as first offenders, but do not have your line attorneys recommend one year of incarceration, because for residential burglaries that had been a longtime office policy: “If they take a plea to a residential burglary, we’re going to recommend one year in custody.” And I thought, “virtually everybody in here, they will all have served time in the statewide prison system. I mean, I just can't let that happen. We've got to do something.” And so the D.A. at the time said, “Well, what do you want to do?” So I told him exactly what I told you. This is why I have this background. He took the risk, obviously, but it paid off. So we evolved from ‘they were going to take a plea and use first-offender treatment,’ which would allow the record to be sealed, to now, the cases continue. They don't have to plead guilty. I supervise them for a year. They signed a speedy trial waiver so that if they don't complete it, they won't later come back and say, I want a speedy trial. You understand there's risk and reward. And so they are with me for a year and all of my various corporate and community partners, which includes, Chick-Fil-A, Porsche, the Hawks, Humana Health Care. They’ve taken on the corporate education piece.
We have developed a really intensive one-year curriculum with these amazing partners. I work with these people for a year with the added component that I just told you about. They're all here with a mentor. When they come in at the six month mark to do case management, they deal with housing counseling and employment development to try to get them ready for when they graduate from my program. They will work with them for 18 months post-graduation.
Louise: Judge, what motivates you in your work? Is race a part of it?
Asha: I like to be very clear with people about part of the reason why I do my program (in addition to my work on the bench) is to impact young, Black and brown people who have historically been subject to longer terms of incarceration and earlier exposure to the justice system for that reason.
Louise: I was reading about your education, and I read, you went to Frederick Douglass High School, which is an interesting high school, nestled between some communities like Mozley Park, Center Hill and Collier Heights, all areas with strong middle-class Black populations (something that didn’t happen easily back in the mid 1900s when the areas were predominantly white).
Asha: I was in a program, the magnet program. And so we were sort of proverbially bussed in. The honors kids. But we spent a great deal of time in the Collier Heights community. We eventually did move.
In some respects, I feel not sheltered but protected because I always grew up looking to the left and to the right of me and not wondering if I could do something but figuring out what I was going to do.
One thing about the educators at Frederick Douglass is that they expected excellence from everybody. And so you fast forward to now, and the students are lawyers and doctors and pharmacists and politicians.
Louise: What did it mean for you and your family, for you to go to law school and become a judge?
Asha: I had some family challenges at that time. My mom moved back to New York because she lost her job. I'm sitting here trying to make it through high school with the help of family and friends. I was an officer in our high school ROTC program, and the leaders of our ROTC program were just really strong men in our community, and they invested in us as leaders and in a very disciplined way.
My mother's side of family is from Jamaica. My great grandparents immigrated here. They did domestic work and they worked hard. They brought other family members here from Jamaica. So hard work is a tenet of that sort of family. My mother's brother was a lawyer, in fact, he recently retired from IBM.
But my mom was a single parent. Our parents divorced and we moved to Atlanta. And so she was a single parent here. Things did get tough at one point in time, but it still didn't change the trajectory for me because the foundation was there.
Louise: Looking back at your work in the court, one thing that has come up in our reporting is people with family members who have mental health issues and have gone to jail. You run a “felony mental health court.” What does that mean?
Asha: If you've ever heard of accountability courts, they do exist nationally. Look up in a DCP National Association of Drug Court Professionals. There's something called “The Miami model.”
Louise: Like from the documentary, “The Definition of Insanity.”
Asha: Yes, there was a judge there and he does a documentary and he walked around to show the state of mental health in the jail and how people deteriorated in this Miami jail.
So under the accountability courts model, they take the plea. They are pleading into our court. Then, we provide all the wraparound services: that's treatment, it's individual therapy. We connect them with the Community Services Board, which is the county-provided service. And then we're lucky because we have had funding over the years, have our own in-house private psychiatrist as well. And the reason that I did that it is it benefits me and our model if in real-time I know how someone's doing medically and whether I need to look to impose a clinical sanction or behavioral sanction.
Louise: I have to say, it's eye opening talking with you because a lot of times you think of court and judges, and that's where the ruling is made and people are punished. The way you're talking sounds more like a doctor. So it's about helping people, not punishment. And that's very interesting.
Asha: Well, when you're talking about mentally ill people, you can't incarcerate this problem away. It's about $65,000 a year to incarcerate someone for a year. So even if you don't buy into the social justice argument of why you should do this economically, that should resonate with you. And it should also resonate with you because it's a revolving door. A number of those people were coming back through because they never treated the underlying issue of mental illness or substance abuse. And so goes this movement of accountability courts where if you can really treat that underlying issue, at least for the substance abuse, hopefully you won't see those people back in the criminal justice system.
If you don't treat it, they'll be back.
Louise: Thank you Asha.
This Week’s Highlights.
Judge Jackson’s Recommendations: On the topic of race and money, the judge recommended “The Black Tax” book by Shawn Rochester and the film “Us” by Jordan Peele. (There’s an unexpected parody in “Us,” she notes.)
If the Kids Had Been White: ProPublica has an interesting analysis into what might have happened in some arrests, if the kids had been white.
Black Entrepreneurism in the Media: There is a good deal happening right now as far as Black journalists starting news outlets that are “creating a space where the Black community can speak for themselves about the issues they care about and dismantle harmful stereotypes,” as described by Cheryl-Thompson-Morton, director of the Black Media Initiative (BMI) at The Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY. This story published by Katie Couric Media gives a good write-up of what we are seeing.
A Podcast About Opening a Black-Owned Bank: What happens when a Black woman tries to set up a Black-owned bank in Waterloo, Iowa? The Center for Public Integrity and Transmitter Media are following along as ReShonda Young, a local popcorn entrepreneur, tries to do just that. You can join her journey in this podcast.
Read About Our Yale course: We developed a course for Yale about race and money in America. The course uses all the disciplines that are central to the M.B.A. curriculum — marketing, economics, finance, leadership, management — and aims to help develop business leaders who will make the world a more equitable place. We were interviewed about the course in the Yale School of Management magazine.
Thank you for spending time with us this week. We welcome your thoughts.