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VOL. 123 | NO. 184 | Friday, September 19, 2008

Fowlkes Seeks Better Way To Treat Criminals in System

By Bill Dries

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“Every time it rains water comes in. … You put a pot under it and catch the water. Sooner or later, you have to fix the roof. What have we done as a society? We’ve gotten bigger pots. We’ve gotten barrels – more prisons.”
– John Fowlkes
Position: Shelby County Criminal Court Division VI judge
Basics: Fowlkes, who was appointed to the post last year and won election in August, said he believes the current prison system is not the answer.

When he was an assistant public defender and an assistant district attorney in the 1980s, John Fowlkes used to measure whether it was a busy day by if he could carry all of his case files under one arm. One arm was busy. Two arms meant he was slammed.

These days, Fowlkes, Shelby County Criminal Court Division VI judge, said the prosecutors who work in the division need carts every day to bring in their case files.

“It’s a tidal wave coming through the system every day,” Fowlkes said earlier this month at a forum on crime sponsored by MPACT Memphis.

Changing landscape

The tidal wave has overwhelmed the federal courts where Fowlkes worked as a prosecutor in the 1990s helping handle the first gun cases handed over from state prosecutors to garner longer sentences for career criminals.

“Our federal system can’t handle them. And so the ones who aren’t as bad – they give them an option,” Fowlkes said of federal prosecutors. “Come over here and face trial and face 12 years in prison … or you can go over to state and agree to plead guilty and get four or five years, six years.”

Many take the plea deal to avoid the federal system where there is no parole and inmates will serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

Others don’t realize that while they eventually will get out, their criminal record – even their arrest record – will make it harder to get a legitimate job.

It’s a conversation Fowlkes said he has from the bench frequently.

“I’ll say, ‘Don’t you understand? It never goes away,’” Fowlkes recounted.

At one campaign stop this summer he said he had 20 people ask how to get a conviction off their records.

Another way

Fowlkes has been outspoken about the need to focus on something other than locking up offenders since he was chief administrative officer for Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. That has continued since Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed him to the bench in August 2007 following the resignation of Judge Fred Axley. Fowlkes won election to the rest of Axley’s eight-year term in August.

His desired focus is in contrast to calls by local law enforcement for tougher sentences.

“We aren’t at the tipping point – the mark here in Memphis yet. The criminals I’ve come into contact with as a prosecutor and also as a judge – they are more afraid of what’s out on the street than they are of long sentences,” Fowlkes said.

“I don’t really think that we as a community have really come to grips with crime and doing the things really necessary to turn it around. … Drug Court is extremely effective but can’t be as effective as it could be because of money. Treatment is money. … Do y’all realize that every guy out at (the Shelby County) Correction Center, we spend $17,000 a year to house them. And that’s cheap.”

Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin said many Memphians haven’t accepted that the city has changed.

“We want to think we are a small town,” Godwin said. “We’re a big city. Knoxville is the size of the East Precinct.”

Godwin and Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons have lobbied the Tennessee Legislature for longer prison sentences for repeat offenders.

Fowlkes argued there has to be more than running people through the court and prison systems.

“Sooner or later, we have to back away from the system and ask the question – what’s wrong and how can we deal with those circumstances?” he said.

As the county’s chief administrative officer, Fowlkes grappled with what he said is the key element in breaking the cycle of violence and prison.

“You know what the biggest obstacle is? Money,” he said. “We’re ready to spend $20,000 a year to house people, but we don’t want to spend any money to get them ready to re-enter. That’s just not real popular with politicians who are running for re-election – to help felons?”

Shelby County has a re-entry program that Fowlkes described as “in its infancy” at the Shelby County Corrections Center. It focuses on letting nonviolent offenders get the skills that will make life outside prison less likely to return to the habits that will ensure a return to prison.

“It’s like our community is a house and the roof needs fixing,” he said. “Every time it rains water comes in. … What’s the first thing you do? You put a pot under it and catch the water. Sooner or later, you have to fix the roof. What have we done as a society? We’ve gotten bigger pots. We’ve gotten barrels – more prisons. That’s been our solution so far.”

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