Chatham Recorder's Court candidate Richard Sanders talks alternative sentencing

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Credit: Courtesy of Richard Sanders

Credit: Courtesy of Richard Sanders

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.  

Richard Sanders is one of three candidates vying for the Recorder's Court judge vacated by Chief Recorder's court judge Tammy Stokes, who is running for Superior Court. Sanders is a Bloomingdale Municipal Court judge. Early voting is taking place, but residents can also cast ballots on Election Day, May 24.

Savannah Morning News: Tell us a little bit about your platform. 

Richard Sanders: "Ultimately, I knew ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a lawyer and that I enjoyed helping people. I enjoyed serving the community. So when I had the ability to get sworn in as a municipal judge in Bloomingdale, I jumped at the chance. Basically, I was assisting the judge that had been out there kind of filling in when he needed it. Like I say, kind of doing the grunt work for the judge, basically, I would be the one they'd call at 2 a.m. so they didn't have to wake up the other judge when they needed to address something. And so as I progressed through that, I realized that the real ability to help people, the real ability to make changes in someone's lives became from the judicial perspective from the bench, the judge making the decisions. And so as I continued through my work in Bloomingdale, municipal court, I continued to see the effect that I could have on people as the judge making the decisions.

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Credit: Courtesy of Richard Sanders

Credit: Courtesy of Richard Sanders

"When the position and Recorder's Court opened up, I figured now is my time now was my time to step up to be able to serve on a greater scale. My platform starts with experience; I’m the most experienced of the three candidates. I've been a judge for, frankly, longer than either of them have been lawyers. It's hard as a judge to come up with a platform because, as a judge, the idea is you're supposed to be fair and impartial to the facts and circumstances of the case in front of you. So, my platform is really just a description of who I am; experienced and compassionate, I think that's a big part of what makes me a qualified judge. I understand that the person in front of me is a person and sometimes compassion is what's needed. And so, I've described myself as experienced and compassionate, and those are probably the two biggest things that I bring to the table over and above my opponents."

SMN: You mentioned, as a judge you seek to serve. Not everyone has a favorable view of judges. So, when you say to serve, what do you mean? 

RS: "When I say serve, I mean service to the community and to protect the community from the actions of that actor in front of me, but also to serve that individual in front of me, meaning that hopefully they have learned their lesson that they will not repeat their behavior. In a large part of my sentencing, I try to focus on almost an educational aspect of it. There has to be a level of punishment when you break the law, but what that punishment is can vary greatly. A punishment can be a fine. A punishment can be community service, punishment can be writing an essay on a topic – there's a whole grand scheme of things. As an elected official, you work for the community. So your goal is to make the community a better place. And how you do that is moving your court dockets so that everyone has their day in court that desires their day in court, so that you can adjudicate cases that come before you to assist the victims or assist the defendants and basically to have justice be served."

SMN: You've spoken about your experience serving in different municipalities as a judge. How will that experience inform your view and approach as Recorder’s Court judge? 

RS: "There's probably a saying somewhere about experience matters, right? Chatham County deserves someone that has made those decisions before. Chatham County deserves someone that can hit the ground running, that understands, frankly, what goes into being a judge and what goes into being a judge of Recorder’s Court. Every person that has been on both sides – a trial lawyer and a judge – will tell you the difference from being on both sides, they play different roles. They have different decisions to make. As a judge that has made those judicial decisions before, I'm in a unique position to hit the ground running day one. The same decisions that will be required in Recorder’s Court, I’m making on a daily basis. Recorder’s Court is just a larger population."

SMN: Can you speak to you know what the function and purposes of Recorder’s Court. 

RS: "I could probably get bogged down in all the specifics, but basically, the way to look at Recorder's Court is the main functions are traffic enforcement, or traffic infractions. That's a large percentage of the work product for Recorder's Court. So, if you receive a traffic citation inside the city of Savannah, or by Chatham County Police Department, in the unincorporated Chatham County, you will receive a citation to appear in front of a Recorder's Court judge.

"The next part, which is code enforcement, or code ordinance violations for city of Savannah and unincorporated Chatham County. Recorder’s Court also handles misdemeanor cases. So if you decide to take a guilty plea, Recorder’s Court can dispose of those misdemeanor cases, because it's a municipal court. There's certain jurisdiction over those misdemeanors that you can actually handle and fully adjudicate; then the other large part becomes bonds.  
"So, if you are arrested inside the city of Savannah, or the unincorporated Chatham County, your first appearance is front of your Recorder’s Court judge. Ultimately, that judge has to determine whether or not you're to be released, whether you're released on bond, whether you're to be released on whatever conditions, or to determine where your case goes from there. As a Recorder’s Court judge, you have the ability to have preliminary hearings, basically probable cause hearings, to determine if there was probable cause for the arrest. And then from there, the case will proceed wherever it needs to go in the court system, whether that is State Court or Superior Court.

"Recorder’s Court is the busiest court in Chatham County. It has the largest reach because you're most likely to come in contact with Recorder’s Court because of the traffic infractions or because of an arrest. All the arrests are appearing in front of a Recorder’s Court judge as their first appearance."

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Credit: Raisa Habersham/The Savannah Morning News

Credit: Raisa Habersham/The Savannah Morning News

SMN: At a previous forum, you talked about alternative forms of sentencing. How will you use that in Recorder's Court? And would you say to someone who may be critical of alternative sentencing and may feel like that's too light on crime? 

RS: "Judges are required to make decisions regardless of outside stimuli or outside conditions. You make the decision as a judge based on the facts and the circumstances in the law on the case in front of you. What I will tell anyone that may be critical of it is listen, those are individualized cases. And there's a reason that as judges, you're not supposed to have a set firm policy on things. It's not everybody that comes in with this, gets this or everybody that pleads this, gets this. It's based on the individual facts and the circumstances of that case.

"When I say alternative sentencing, it goes back to what I said at the beginning: there are different forms of punishment for different people. In other words, a $150 fine, is different to a CEO of a company than it is a single mother that can't pay your bills, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company versus someone that just got laid off. The $150 fine for the CEO, is, let me cut a check and be done. The $150 fine for the person that's unemployed is backbreaking and continuous. The idea is, yes, that $150 Fine to the CEO will get that CEO to think twice about speeding, but maybe community service for the unemployed will do the exact same thing. And that's what I mean by alternative sentencing. There are levels of punishments for individuals that some people may not view as a punishment that others may view.

"My goal throughout being a judge has been to try to talk to the individual that's in front of me to kind of get a feel for what is going to be that punishment, that deterrent, that level to prevent them from coming back. Then the goal is to effectuate that so that they learn a lesson. And the hope is they don't come back and commit the same behavior over again."

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Credit: Raisa Habersham/The Savannah Morning News

Credit: Raisa Habersham/The Savannah Morning News

SMN: What do you say to those who may feel like alternative sentencing is too soft on crime? 

RS: "The short answer is, you need to be specific about what alternative sentencing you're complaining about or upset about. There are so many generic terms that people encompass everything under. So, the thought is that just because you say alternative sentencing, does that mean an alternative defense? Does that mean an alternative to jail time? Then I would tell the individual is, well think about if it was your case and think about if that was you in front of the judge, under a different set of circumstances, wouldn't you want a judge to listen to you and hear you out and make a decision based on your facts and your circumstances that apply to you?

"I take issue with someone that specifically just jumps on a term and assumes it's all encompassing. Again, I will say I've been a judge for a long time and I've made those tough decisions. I would tell someone to go back and look at my record, talk to someone that's been in front of me, talk to the individuals in court, and see if this alternative sentencing that I'm talking about is something that concerns them."

SMN: One concern among residents is the uptick in homicides and crime. If you're elected Recorder’s Court judge, how will you help tackle that issue? 

RS: "Clearly, that has been a hot topic issue in Savannah. Judges have a very specific role in the judicial system, and in fact, Recorder's Court has a very, very specific role in the judicial system. If you're arrested for a murder in Savannah, your first appearance is front of a Recorder's Court judge, but there's a code section in Georgia that a Recorder's Court judge can't even grant bond to someone charged with that offense. That's a Superior Court judge's decision. Basically, the seven deadly sins – those are not to be granted bond by Recorder's Court. So, to an extent, a lot of those issues that are hot button issues, if you will, are outside of the purview of Recorder's Court.

I referenced earlier judges are to make decisions based on the cases in front of them, the facts and the circumstances and the law in front of them, not the outside pressures. A judge's job is not to make law; a judge's job is not to fight crime. The police make an arrest; the district attorney prosecutes the crime. The defense attorney represents people when those issues are brought in front of the judge; the judge makes the decision. Now as a judge, you do have the ability when it comes to sentencing, to effectuate sentencing. The way that I relate kind of these topics to Recorder’s Court becomes what we often hear as recidivism or repeat offenders. How many breaks are we giving certain people? I go back to the law, the code section on granting bonds. One of the factors to consider becomes is this person likely to go out and commit another felony, is this person likely to endanger the community? If you follow those guidelines, if you follow the statute, follow the case law, when deciding those facts and circumstances, you shouldn't have these issues by just making the decision based on the law.

SMN: One final question, why should residents vote for you? 

RS: "I'm the most experienced candidate that's running for recorders court. I've been a judge for over a decade serving the citizens of Chatham County. I am actively involved in this community and I'm raising my kids in this community. I want the best for Chatham County. I've served on various volunteer activities, many boards. I've been actively involved. I understand that the people that are likely to come in front of Recorder's Court, are your neighbors, it's your friends, it's your family. They are people in front of you that your decisions will affect just like there's victims that are there. They are defendants, those are all people. And so, as a judge, you have to make decisions being fair and impartial based on the facts and circumstances and the law in front of you. And I believe I'm the most equipped to do that.

Raisa is a Watchdog and Investigative Reporter for The Savannah Morning News. Contact her at rhabersham@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Chatham Recorder's Court candidate Richard Sanders talks alternative sentencing