State Court judge candidates want alternatives

By Ed Brock

Providing alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders has been a prime issue in many races for court positions in Clayton County and the race for one State Court judgeship is no exception.

Jonesboro attorney Coatsey Ellison is challenging incumbent Judge Harold Benefield. Ellison says he wants to bring more pre-trial intervention programs to the court while Benefield says he's been doing just that for more than two decades.

Benefield, 53, was appointed to the judgeship in March 1982 following a career spent as a prosecuting attorney and in private practice, all in Clayton County where Benefield has lived his entire life.

In 1973 Benefield graduated from Georgia Tech and in 1976 received his law degree from Mercer University School of Law in Macon.

His campaign has been going well, Benefield said.

"It's been difficult at times but it's been well worth it," Benefield said.

Benefield said he offers the people a "breadth and depth of experience" and in his 22 years on the bench he has handled over 500,000 cases of various natures.

"I have a very balanced background that I brought to the court," Benefield said. "I came to a court that was greatly in need of restructuring."

Before he took the office the people who came to the court were not informed of their rights, nor were there any alternative sentencing options.

"There was a lot to be done so I basically had to create a court," Benefield said. "I'm very proud of the fact that today Clayton County's State Court is second to none."

About 20 years ago Benefield started a work release program so some inmates could serve their time but still support their families, and later he created a weekend incarceration program for the same purpose.

Benefield also touted his knowledge of the law and his efficient case management. His court processes around 50,000 cases a year with no backlog.

Ellison, 49, has been practicing law in Jonesboro for 16 years. He graduated from Clark College in Atlanta and received his law degree from Georgia State University.

His campaign has been going very well, Ellison said.

"I've had people come to my office asking for signs," Ellison said. "They've stopped my workers when they're out putting up signs and asked for signs."

Ellison said he's worried about the county's youth and the kind of treatment they've been getting. Along with pre-trial intervention programs for first offenders who are non-violent, Ellison supports pre-trial release, especially for those who will most likely not be sentenced to jail time.

"If somebody is arrested and can't make bond, but they're probably going to get probation anyway, why keep them in jail?" Ellison said.

Most urban counties have pre-trial release, Ellison said.

Ellison also wants to start a drug court, but drug dealers would not be included in that program.

"It's for people who are using drugs, who have drug problems," Ellison said. "That person needs help more than being incarcerated."

If elected he will treat all people with dignity and respect, Ellison said, "because that doesn't always happen."

"I will put myself in their shoes and that's how I'm going to treat them," Ellison said.

State Court of Clayton County Judges Morris Braswell and Linda S. Cowen are running unopposed.