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Crucial Conversations: Anita Reynolds Howard talks justice system and minority community relations

Anita Reynolds Howard made history when she won the election for district attorney. Now, she wants to use her position to help mend a broken relationship.

MACON, Ga. — This year has been one of racial reckoning. 2020 pushed tough but crucial conversations to happen. 

Eryn Rogers spoke to the Macon Judicial Circuit District Attorney-Elect Anita Reynolds Howard. She says she's the first woman and Black person to hold that position. She will soon be leading a system that many say is broken and systemically affects people of color. 

Eryn: How do you see your role as DA?

ARH: I see my role as DA as the main purpose is to ensure a safe community, and that is achieved and done in various ways. Traditionally, that has been done through the prosecution of crime. That is something that I will continue, especially violent crime, but I also think as a progressive prosecutor, it has been found that prevention measures also help to keep a community safe. Prevention measures as well as presenting opportunities of community support rather than correctional control.

I think what we have going on, reasons why we're seeing the crime that we see, specifically in the Macon Judicial Circuit, is that we have a lot of untreated trauma, communities, individuals who have been victimized by the criminal justice system, by their circumstances, and that victimization has gone untreated.

What I want to do, and what I will do as district attorney, is to deal with the underlying issues so that we don't have assembly line justice but have more of a holistic approach -- 'How did this person get to this office?' -- especially when you're talking about children. Asking those questions: what their home environment is like, what it's been like, so we can try to treat that trauma, and we can help to heal on a holistic approach, so that when we return people to our communities, they can return with hope, with healing, and they are returned with community support. 

Eryn: What about these communities that have been generationally traumatized? How do you break that cycle?

ARH: I believe you do that one family at a time. I think that is important to look at the family unit. Oftentimes, we offer life skill classes or community support to maybe a child who is at-risk, or maybe even a child who has committed a certain type of criminal offense, but then you're putting them back in the same environment, so I think the best outcome for success is you treat the entire family unit, and I think the way we deal with these systemic issues is one family at a time. 

Eryn: We are in a fraught political climate, so how do you fix that damaged relationship, especially when you're talking about the justice system and minority communities?

ARH: I believe you start by building the trust of the community, and a community is not going to trust you if they don't know you. I cannot and will not be a district attorney who governs from the courthouse. 

We have a broken criminal justice system that has eroded at the public trust, and I believe the way we begin to gain that back is through truth and transparency. 

Eryn: We are in a system that disproportionately affects Black and brown people -- no secret you are a Black woman. Do you think that is a conflict, or do you think that is a way for people to shift the way they see the system?

ARH: I think that people will be able to better relate. It's important to have diversity in all avenues of life, but that diversity, what that brings about, is a different perspective, so you not only have a district attorney that has a law degree, is qualified, is a career prosecutor, you get the added benefit of having a DA that has a different perspective based on my diverse background, as a person of color, as a woman. 

Eryn: What are some of the ways that you're going to start building that trust, what is the first thing you're going to do to mend those relationships?

ARH: We're going to start to focus on and work on within the first quarter of 2021 is the District Attorney Case Analysis. We know that we have a criminal justice system that has disproportionately affected African-Americans, people of color, people from different socio economic statuses, but what does that mean for specifically the Macon Judicial Circuit, where are we, what are the goals, what do we want the numbers to look like, so actually looking at the data to determine where we are and how do we promote equitable outcomes for all...That people are going to prisons, not because they can't afford alternative programs, but they're going to prison because those are the folks that compromise the safety of our community, and it would be unsafe for them to be treated in the community, and that's not what we have in our criminal justice system, so making sure we have equitable outcomes for all. That to me is the only way to begin to heal this broken system that we have. 

Eryn: What are we seeing in our system? 

ARH: I believe we have a system that has basically preyed on those that are from marginalized lower-income communities, and that's why you see the disparities when you're dealing with race in lower socioeconomic status of individuals. 

When you have systemic issues that have caused certain groups of people to not be able to thrive like other groups, you see the consequences of lack of opportunity in the criminal justice system. This is about how do we level that playing field, how do we make sure not that we're giving a hand out, but giving a hand up. We are saying that we understand that typically certain communities have not been given the same opportunities, and we want to give those opportunities, so folks can better their lives. 

Eryn: What will that look like?

ARH: The District Attorney Accountability Council will be one of the first initiatives that we will start. We are already identifying some individuals who are on that council. It will be made up of people from the Bibb, Crawford, and Peach Communities, different community leaders and activists. We want to make sure we have a good representation of what our communities actively look like. 

It's our job to make sure those who aren't requesting, don't know to request, don't have those connections, aren't comfortable with requesting, that takes a little bit of confidence on it's own, making sure that nobody is left out. 

Those folks who have been traditionally under represented, they are from marginalized communities, those are the folks who are used to a system, used to having officials who leave them out of the conversation, so we want to change that narrative. We want folks to know that we want to make sure that those communities that are most of need, we are meeting those needs first, and that's where my administration will start, that is where the district attorney accountability council will start. I believe it's going to be changing how we even offer opportunities. It's making sure that those most in need are aware of opportunities and that they are helped. 

Eryn: What do you see is the most deep-rooted issues that community members are still trying to build and fight through right now?

ARH: I believe it's again trauma. We have communities that are filled with trauma. We have children, them either experiencing violence firsthand, or them being victims of violence firsthand, or experiencing the violence through seeing that, and it's just a re-victimization of communities that we have to deal with...That law enforcement is someone they can trust, someone they can go to. Those are the things we teach children at a very young age, but when you have a few, a very small few of individuals, not acting in good faith, and children are able to witness that, it's almost like a deprogramming of what is good, or what should be good. We've got to have communities and promote communities where our children can live and learn in peace. 

Eryn: What do you want your legacy to be in this role?

ARH: I want my legacy to be that our community, Bibb, Crawford, and Peach County became a safer community, a district attorney's office that embraced the community, and a DA's office that was transparent and accountable to the people who are being served. I want to build the community's confidence in a broken criminal justice system, a system where the public trust has been eroded, and I'm going to do that with  truth, and I'm going to do that with transparency. 

Anita Reynolds Howard takes office in January. 

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