Editor's note: The Savannah Morning News spoke with the three candidates vying for an open seat on the Recorder's Court bench. They shared their platforms, reasons for running and what they would do from their vantage point to curb crime in Savannah and Chatham County.
Joe Huffman is one of three candidates running to fill the seat vacated by Chief Recorder's Court judge Tammy Stokes. Huffman previously has served as a Savannah police officer, a litigator and is now a Garden City municipal judge. Early voting is taking place, but residents can also cast ballots on Election Day, May 24.
Savannah Morning News: Tell us about your platform and why you're running for Recorder’s Court judge.
Joe Huffman: "There's an opportunity for me to put to use all of the experience that I've gathered, the comprehensive background that I have been exposed to and developed, and put it to use to serve the community and do my part as a judge. My platform is very simple, straightforward. A judge should strive to ensure equal justice under the law. That's what I try to do as a judge; diversion programs, alternate sentencing, tough on crime, easy on crime – none of that matters if you don't strive to achieve equal justice under the law. To me, equal justice under the law means you treat everyone the same; it's the same process might not be equal outcomes under the law, but it's equal justice under also equal treatment.
"The only way to achieve that is you treat everyone as an individual that comes into the courtroom, because ultimately, if the justice system doesn't work for everyone, it doesn't work for anyone. And so my platform, regardless of any innovative or new ideas, old ideas, what's going on in the community, a judge has to strive to ensure equal justice under the law."
SMN: Can you give an example of when you've had to issue equal justice? And what exactly is equal justice?
JH: "The biggest impediment to our justice system is the disparate treatment of individuals. As the judge, you can't control how people come into your courtroom, but you can control how they're treated when they get to your courtroom. To explain my concept of equal justice, I'll give a lesson I learned as a police officer. As a police officer, I would encounter dozens of people a day. I know that I would probably be a memory for a lot of those individuals I arrested because that's a paramount day in their life. And I never tried to lose sight of or take for granted my role as police officer when I encountered individuals. I treat everyone with dignity and respect regardless of what had been accused of them, or what I was accusing of them. I'm a human being; we're in this human experience together.
"So as a judge, I try to keep the same mentality as far as that goes. I might see 200 people a day on a docket and to those 200 people, I may be the only judge they ever encounter or have experience with in the courtroom. And although that's just one or 200 on that day, I cannot lose perspective on giving that individual person that dignity and respect they deserve as a human, as a citizen, and as a community member to be heard and have due consideration to make sure that their rights aren't trampled on. I'm not their advocate, but I'm also not a prosecutor; I'm trying to ensure a fair process to apply to each."
SMN: Obviously, you're running for Recorder’s Court judge. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of Recorder's Court and what you offer to this bench?
JH: "Recorder’s Court is a traffic court. So, in the state of Georgia, every municipality, every city or entity that incorporates into a municipality can also have a municipal court that can be what's called a court of initial inquiry. Recorder’s Court is State Court without jury trials. It can dispose of all misdemeanor offenses, which carry a penalty of 12 months in jail or less, or up to $1,000 in fines. Some misdemeanors carry up to $5,000 in fines, but it can preliminarily hear felony matters. It can set bond on some felony cases; it can have preliminary hearings for some felony cases. And then it can dispose of all ordinances.
"Because of its nature of traffic court, Recorder’s Court is basically the first stop to the courthouse, the gateway to the courthouse. Recorder’s Court sees every case first before the case goes on. And a lot of cases get resolved in Recorder’s Court. So, it filters out a lot of cases before those cases go on to the higher courts, such as State and Superior courts.
"I've heard some narratives, for example, of Recorder’s Court involvement in bonds in the community, and Recorder's Court plays a vital role in issues of bond with some cases. But a Recorder's Court judge does not have the power or jurisdiction or authority to even consider bond in some cases such as armed robbery, murder, rape, and several others that we call the seven deadly sins. So as a judge, what I can bring to the court is an understanding of [how Recorder's Court works]."
Recorder's Court Judge candidate forum: Crime, accountability discussed at Chatham County Recorder's Court judge candidate forum
SMN: You mentioned earlier, alternative sentencing. How would you use that in Recorder’s Court? And what would you say to someone who may be critical of alternative sentencing who may feel like it's not tough on crime?
JH: "I have heard concerns in the community about alternative sentencing and seeing them not being tough on crime. I'll answer it in two parts. In the context of Recorder’s Court, it can actually only dispose of misdemeanors. The most violent misdemeanors are going to involve charges of battery, which is visible bodily injury; the court also sees charges of DUI, which is concerning to the community. There are actual code sections that dictate that if you get a certain number of DUIs within a certain period of time, by law, there have to be certain kinds of sentences. For the things that are most concerning to the community such as DUIs, it ties the hands of a judge with mandatory sentencing. So, even if you want to be creative, as a judge, you are bound by the law and you have to know what the law is.
"In Recorder's Court, you can get creative with holding people accountable if there is a need to hold people accountable. For example, we'll talk about bonds and then sentencing. For bonds, if somebody's paying money to get out of jail, if there's a concern of a real offense, you can get creative as a judge by imposing additional conditions upon and requirements of appearing more often. For example, you don't just put the conditions and hope they comply. You put the conditions on them and say we'll see you next week. And when they come in, if someone is not compliant with conditions, that bond can be revoked; you're putting more accountability on the person being released from jail, which should tamp down concerns of both the community and the system of this person being released."
SMN: One concern from residents has been crime. As Recorder’s Court judge what will you do ease those concerns?
JH: "Crime in Chatham County is cyclical. We go through these waves where there's higher violence and then lower periods of violence. There's a lot of discussion in the community on how to address it. The role of a judge is not to be a prosecutor. A judge does not defend people. But a judge can have a specific role in addressing areas of concern when it comes to cases of violent crime or crime in general. Some resolutions are on a case-by-case basis to value, discuss with a person and not just have requirements of go do community service, right, or just pay a fine, or go complete a drug rehab program or an anger management course. One thing that has received some attention, but not enough, is trauma in our community.
"In my work as a child advocate in Chatham County Juvenile Court, there were a lot of times kids were being misdiagnosed with ADHD that was actually trauma. That was untreated trauma that these kids were manifesting symptoms of, but they were just misdiagnosed with ADHD. They were getting prescribed medications for ADHD instead of getting, in some instances, trauma-based cognitive therapy. And that's just a small sample size of the community of kids who have experienced it. I would not be shocked, or surprised if there wasn't a strong correlation with undiagnosed and untreated trauma in adults and young people in our community that continues to lead to impulsive thinking, impulsive actions, lack of care, concern, antisocial behaviors, and anti-social actions.
So as a judge, if you dig into the background of someone appropriately in court, and you see that maybe there's a potential for something related to trauma, then you can go a step further and order a trauma assessment – not just anger management, not just drug treatment – and see if that helps lead to a better understanding to try to address some concerns that may be about your actions. The judge has the power to kind of dig in and get involved in that manner. I would be ordering, in that instance, someone to complete an evaluation. And a lot of times, judges do that already with mental health, but I'm talking specifically about trauma, because I think that trauma is a huge issue in our community.
I base that on my experience with kids in Chatham County Juvenile Court, and I think about it when I was encountering youth ages 15 or 16. They were manifesting symptoms of trauma that they experienced when they were four and five. Now we're talking about individuals who might be in their 20s, who never had a diagnosis or evaluation or counseling. And that's not a magic pill answer to everything, but that is an area based on my experience that I would explore urgently, with open eyes, the area of trauma evaluations.
SMN: One final question, why should residents vote for you?
JH: "Residents should vote for me because I am of this community, from this community (and), that means I'm for this community. I have a sole singular focus of ensuring equal justice under the law, regardless of the outcome. Equal justice under the law doesn't mean everybody goes to jail, and it doesn't mean everybody gets a bond doesn't, or that nobody gets a bond. I don't predetermine cases or outcomes based on charges, or predetermined outcomes. I don't predetermine outcomes on anything. I take it on a case-by-case basis, people should vote for me for Recorder's Court judge because I will do a good job and I have been doing a good job. Ultimately, my goal is to ensure equal justice under the law. I have no other goal than that."
These answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Raisa is a watchdog and investigative reporter for the Savannah Morning News. Contact her at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Chatham elections 2022: Recorder's Court candidate Joe Huffman Q&A