Atlanta, GA – Recently, NIA organizers facilitated a panel discussion of public officials with the Rotary Club of Atlanta. The Atlanta Rotary is one of the largest in the country. The panel discussion was arranged as part of the Rotary’s regular weekly luncheons held at the Loudermilk Center in downtown Atlanta. The topic was “Criminal Justice Reform: Why Should the Business Community Care?”
The panel included Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chair Dr. John Eaves, Superior Court Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua, and Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson. The panel was moderated by AJC Editor Kevin Riley. This was an opportunity for these public officials to initiate a candid conversation with the business community to enlighten them about their professional experiences with respect to how we prosecute criminal behavior and how we manage the incarceration of those paying back society for their crimes.
“I must say that on behalf of so many organizations working hard on these issues, we are very encouraged by the success of this crucial first step. And we are more than grateful for the leadership of the Rotary’s president Clyde C. Tuggle, in being sincerely sensitive in making it all happen.” Kate Boccia, President and CEO of the NIA was clear in making these comments as she made her way around the room entertaining the many side-bar conversations that continued after the event had concluded.
Recently, as the topic gets to be a louder and perhaps a safer political conversation, there is a growing number of public-sector advocates working in coordinated efforts to connect harder-to-place workers into viable tracks of occupational and career development. However, too much of the business community still lacks the information and comfort needed to open more doors for this group of Georgia citizens. The “ah hah” moment of the day probably came when Judge LaGrua asked the group “How many of you would consider hiring a formerly convicted felon?” Not one hand went up. Probably because of the shock of the question. Probably because an affirmative answer could not be asserted without more conditional questions. Certainly, there are some notable employers throughout the metro area who have discovered advantages in finding ways to put these people to work.
Either way, it was the moment we at the NIA had been looking forward to. The moment when the huge gap in this essential conversation was finally put squarely in the center of the business table. Sheriff Jackson went on to paint a picture of some of the internal programs he has been able to innovate within the limited budget afforded him. Chairman Eaves stressed how this issue is of high priority for his office as the steward of the fiscal resources of the county in the best interest of public safety as well as the growth of commerce.
Toward the end of the discussion, DA Paul Howard, as the county’s chief prosecutor redirected the question, “What if these people where vetted in tailored ways for your businesses, and what if there were monetary incentives in it for you, how many would consider hiring formerly convicted felons?” A few hands went up without hesitation. Others asked qualifying questions.
The classic “what if” had defined a future course of great hope, and declared a success of both the event and the idea. In concert with other partners and stakeholders, the NIA will be pushing for a series of such strategic projects. Stand by for the call to action.