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False attack shines light on my story and the urgent need for criminal justice reform

By Mokah Jasmine Johnson

Last week, three days after my father passed away, I was notified of phone calls into my district in support of my opponent that were filled with misleading personal attacks, including the claim that I “was convicted of a felony, served time in prison, and convinced a judge to remove it from [my] record to cover it all up.” I’m here to set the record straight.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was 20 years old, I got caught up in the same unjust mass

incarceration system I’m currently working to dismantle. My boyfriend and I were driving back home from college when we were targeted by an undercover cop. Because my boyfriend purchased $5 worth of marijuana from this officer while I was present, I was also arrested.

Our arrests were part of a sting operation so large that there weren’t enough jail cells to hold

everyone arrested that night. As a result, the officers took us to an open field where we waited for several hours. When we finally were taken to the jail and I passed a drug test, I was released quickly. I spent no time in a jail cell, but I was charged with a misdemeanor.

My story is not unique. Black people are 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite equal rates of use. Marijuana arrests have continued to climb since 1990, with 6.1 million marijuana-related arrests occurring between 2010 and 2018. Young people are disproportionately hurt by this system, with 42% of people admitted on marijuana charges in Georgia between the ages of 20 and 29. Enforcement of marijuana possession laws costs American taxpayers $3.6 billion annually while inflicting lasting damage on communities of color.

For example, as a first-time offender, I pleaded no contest to save my hard-working, immigrant parents from having to pay legal fees. I was told my misdemeanor charges would be dismissed once I completed my community service. However, the charge continued to follow me and was inaccurately recorded as a felony. On numerous occasions, this interfered with my ability to secure jobs and housing. In order to free myself from this burden, I successfully filed for expungement. Clearing my record gave me a chance to begin anew. Twenty-five years later, I’m a proud mother and grandmother, a dedicated educator, a successful entrepreneur, and a powerful activist.

There is a dark irony here. Until this year, Georgia had some of the most limited expungement laws in the country, forcing Georgians to bear the mark of one mistake for the rest of their lives. I was glad to see my opponent sponsor SB 288, a bill to expand our expungement system.

While my opponent touted the economic benefits of the reforms, these attacks made on his

behalf reveal a failure to understand the human costs of this system. My opponent built his political career on his grandfather’s work as a superior court judge. Yet, he fails to see that we have two justice systems in America: one that is deeply forgiving to wealthy, well-connected white people, and one that is brutal to poor people of color. As soon as

it became politically advantageous, my opposition cynically leveraged the results of this

systemic racism in an attempt to block me from yet another new job: State Representative.

Although this was my first and only arrest, for too many this is not the case. A single arrest can start a cycle of poverty and escalating encounters with the criminal justice system, permanently shutting people out of access to employment and housing. This is why criminal justice reform has been a core element of my activism and campaign platform since the beginning. I successfully led an effort to end cash bail locally. Yet despite the harm caused by cash-bail, my opponent introduced legislation in the State House that would reverse our local reforms.

I’d like to thank my opponent and his allies for giving me this opportunity to share my story and how it continues to inspire my work towards criminal justice reform. I’m done being ashamed that I got caught up in the same cruel system that continues to prey on people of color, particularly Black people, to this day.

I want to see marijuana legalized. I want to see the system of mass incarceration dismantled

and its damages redressed. Most importantly, I want people in Georgia to have access to

restorative justice and second chances. While my opponent may believe my story is a

weakness, I know that many of the people I seek to represent recognize the failings of our

criminal justice system. My personal experience of it only makes me the better candidate to

address it.

Mokah Jasmine Johnson is the Democratic candidate for House District 117 which covers

portions of Athens, Barrow, Jackson, and Oconee counties. As the co-founder of the Athens

Anti-Discrimination Movement, Mokah led the fight to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance and end cash bail for nonviolent offenders in Athens. Over the last few years, Mokah has led

multiple rallies, drawing thousands of community members to demand justice and police


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