Crime and Punishment

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 23, 2004

Editor’s Note: A brief read of the daily police reports provides a litany of domestic violence, drug arrests, assaults and worse. Shootings occur with seeming regularity and Selma has suffered six murders already this year.

The candidates for District Attorney, Circuit and District Judge will be expected to help Selma deal with the problem of crime.

As we approach the June 1 Primary Election, the Selma Times-Journal’s next two Sunday Focuses will deal with crime in Selma and the surrounding area and the candidates plans to help.

Email newsletter signup

The process is familiar. Shots ring out, people scatter and the police come with sirens

screaming and lights flashing. Usually someone is arrested, sometimes no one is caught. Some times, no one is hurt.

Other times, there is grieving. Speeches are made, committees discuss options and solutions are enacted.

Then it starts all over again.

Crime isn’t limited to Selma, the Black Belt or the South. But for Selma’s citizens the battle is fought, for the most part, locally. In Selma the church and community groups, the police, the prosecutors and the judges fight the battle daily.

In the June 1 Primary Election, there are challengers for District and Circuit Court Judge position as well as the District Attorney’s office.

Whoever is elected, the voters’ decision in two weeks could mean the difference in whether or not Selma wins the battle against crime.

“No one person can solve the problem of crime in Selma,” incumbent District Judge Nathaniel Walker said. “It has to be a community wide effort. It has to start from the community up.”

The focus of that effort, Walker says, should begin with getting drugs off the street and getting youngsters to believe in the importance of education.

“I think a lot of the kids have lost their way,” Walker said. “The money these kids make selling drugs looks good to them.

A lot of the kids don’t see the benefit of a education.”

One of the challengers for District Judge, attorney Bob Armstrong agrees, but says there hasn’t been enough done to battle the drug problem.

“We’re deficient in some areas, we don’t have the capabilities to address the drug and alcohol problem,” Armstrong said. “I think the most direct factor in Dallas County (to) violence and crime is drugs. Drugs and alcohol affect your ability to make rational decisions. They depress you ability to do what’s right.”

City Attorney Jimmy Nunn says that alternatives have to be given to make the choice to avoid the fast-money, high-risk lifestyle easier.

“They are dealing with the money or dealing with the drugs,” Nunn said. “As an elected official, we need to find ways to give individuals other alternatives.”

Steps have already been taken to combat Selma’s drug problem. Incumbent District Attorney Ed Greene pointed to the attempts to get a drug court.

“We have reapplied to see if we can get a drug court,” he said. “Our office is trying

to initiate it to work with the drug user and abuser in a more appropriate way.’

Greene added that dealing with drug criminals through community corrections would have other benefits as well.

“Community corrections works in hopes that we will be able to attack the problems of prison over-crowding,”

he said.

Attorney Michael Jackson, who is running for district attorney, says the focus should be on going after the drug traffickers.

“Drug rehabilitation is fine, but you also have to deal with going after the suppliers,” Jackson said. “We have to have some kind of policy of going after these folks bringing the big drugs in. Drugs have totally infected Selma, it’s in all aspects of our community. We’ve got to cut that supply off.”

Circuit Court Incumbent Marvin Wiggins also said the focus should move to the suppliers.

“What I’ve seen is that we’re arresting the small amounts, we have to tackle the guys who are smuggling and trafficking those drugs,” Wiggins said.

Greene said the Drug Task Force is working on fighting that problem.

“The Drug Task Force has done some very good work to make it uncomfortable in this area (for dealers) to make their way selling drugs,” Greene said.

Wiggins also credited the work of the Task Force.

“The Task Forces are working hard, I commend them for what they’ve done,” he said.

Wiggins’ opponent, former District Judge Farrell McKelvey-Wright says part of the solution is judges following the mandates of the law with swift, appropriate sentencing.

“I think if we show that we’re sincere about law enforcement it will make a difference,” McKelvey-Wright said. “I tend to believe the judge’s job is once there is a finding, the state law should be followed.

We should not continue to send them out on the street.”

In the end, Walker says it will take a community effort to slow down the drug problem, which will in turn cut down on crime in general.

“Until we as a community newspaper come together and change these people up, we’re going to continue to have a problem,” Walker said.

While drugs are a big facet of the crime problem, Selma faces a multitude of other issues related to crime, most of which can lead to more violent acts.

One of the issues affecting law enforcement in Selma is domestic violence. The Selma Police have a high rate of calls involving

domestic disturbances.

McKelvey-Wright said she battled the problem as a district judge. She said that one of the problems keeping law enforcement from helping is a victim backing out of the charges and the same couple coming back time and again.

“One of my policies was not to dismiss any case unless the arresting officer would be there also,” she said. “I would reach a point where I would not dismiss.”

Wiggins said he’s run into similar problems.

“It’s difficult, it ties our hands,” he said. “We’re trying to partner with these domestic violence centers…. requiring him or her to get the necessary counseling or treatment.”

Nunn, who served as domestic violence coordinator in the DA’s office, said ordering counseling is a key to fighting the problem.

“With other punishments later, but that’s the first step,’ he said.

McKelvey-Wright added that families in a cycle of domestic violence present problems for police as well.

“That’s one of the most dangerous situations law enforcement is called in to because it’s a crime of passion,” she said.

All of the candidates talked about the importance of reaching the area’s youth in hopes of teaching them to avoid trouble down the road.

“You have to nip the crime in the bud, at the juvenile stage,” Jackson said. “Kids are going to have to be ordered to stay in school. We need a detention center here.”

The detention center Jackson mentioned is a topic other candidates addressed as well.

While Jackson and Armstrong would like to see a center in Dallas County again, Walker says it’s not necessary.

“We had a juvenile detention center here 12 years ago. We’ll have a detention center here, we’ll get one,” Armstrong said. “The practical affect is immeasurable. (Now) It’s easier to let some kids that need to be detained but are on the borderline slide, rather than haul them across the state.”

Walker said the number of Dallas County children in juvenile detention does not warrant a local center.

“People give the impression that we have a lot of kids in juvenile detention but we really don’t,” Walker said.

Nunn said more detention centers, more prisons are not a solution to the problem.

“We continue to build prisons, we continue to build detention centers, we continue to build jails, but we must get to the root of the problem,” Nunn said. “Why are these individuals committing these crimes? Instead of sending that child to a detention center, start some type of monitoring program to work on preventive measures.”

Wiggins also said alternative measures will help, especially with youths.

“We have to find alternative ways of dealing with criminals, we have to find ways to deal with deterrents, particularly with these kids that are dropping out of school,” he said. “One of the first things I’ve done is started a summer employment program to help build self-esteem, to give kids alternatives to allow them to use their talent and skills.”

Other candidates suggested getting families more involved in the lives of their youth.

Jackson added he would like to see parents ordered to be more involved in their children’s education.

“We’re allowing too many kids to be dropping out of school,” Jackson said. “One idea is requiring parents to attend PTO meetings to get report cards. The first problem I see is the parents are allowing the kids to take over the households.”

Greene said his office has worked to educate children on other solutions. Through programs like Alabama Ice, the DA’s office has been able to send Cobey Chestnut to schools to talk with children.

“Try and communicate the message that empowerment with a gun or knife is not appropriate and is not tolerated by society,” Greene said.

The DA’s office also participates in other functions at school despite other demands on their time.

“All the individual efforts, being involved in the community, being involved with school lectures, mock trials and career days,” Greene said of members of his office trying to make a difference in the community.

In the end, the crimes in Selma are as diverse as it’s people, however many of the causes share a common root, desperation.

Armstrong says as the County’s Chief Juvenile Officer, he would help coordinate the many organizations and agencies in the area battling crime.

“The District Judge would be the hub, the instigator,” Armstrong said. “I would have the authority to pick up the phone and call the agencies.

I know all these organizations, I’ve served on the boards. I know what they do.”

Nunn said the community must do more to give young people an alternative.

“Partnership it with the local churches, businesses and agencies to find these young men a job,” Nunn said.

Walker said many of the things his opponents bring up are already being done, but the administrative end of the District Court is more than a full time job in itself. A 1996 finding that recommended to the state legislator that Dallas County needed another District Court Judge to handle the massive workload. Despite that report, the county still has only a single District Judge

“A judges’ first responsibility is judicial and administrative,” he said. “A lot of the stuff we do, we don’t publicize it.

We just try to get the job done.”

Still, Nunn says more can be done.

“I think a judge can do more as it relates to trying to reduce crime, teaching he kids about the justice system and the punishment,” he said.

Armstrong agrees. “I see it as an extension of the judge’s office to work hand-in-hand with other officials who are more directly relates with jobs, summer programs…,” he said. “You have the ability to get action because of the position.”