By Ashley Benkarski
NASHVILLE, TN— You may be familiar with the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility.”
In so many words, Division II General Sessions Court Judge Melissa Blackburn agrees.
She said she hopes voters see “the genuine approach I bring to this work and the empathy I have for the clients we serve.”
Elected in 2014, Blackburn is a Nashville native and Lipscomb graduate.
“We don’t get the attention other courts do, but General Sessions is the most diverse court in Nashville,” Blackburn said. “I am very proud of the fact that we are leading the way when it comes to changing how our justice system works.”
Often, barriers to justice in the Court are due to the laws crafted by Congress, she said. “Many of the people who pass the laws we are required to use have never set foot into a criminal proceeding or seen the impact of their decisions up close,” Blackburn added. “In Nashville, we work to overcome many of these problematic laws through the use of specialty courts and restorative justice innovations. But we are one county often fighting an uphill fight.”
Judge Blackburn oversees Davidson County’s Mental Health and Veterans Specialty Courts.
“People who would otherwise sit in jail and not get the help they need are given a full wraparound of services that allow them to find their road back to full participation in the community,” she said.
Despite the upheaval throughout the pandemic Judge Blackburn said her courts never closed. “That is a tribute to the professionalism and commitment of our staff,” she remarked.
Mental health is an issue that’s affected Blackburn directly. “Having experienced a family tragedy resulting from mental challenges, I understand not only the difficulties our clients face, but the devastating impact it can have on their families,” she said. “With no compassionate assistance, these families are left to struggle in ways many people do not begin to understand. I do understand and it guides my work.”
Judge Blackburn said some in the criminal justice community have rallied to “recognize the system isn’t working either for people with very severe mental illness or for public safety” in light of an incident involving a man deemed incompetent attacking nurses at a local hospital. “I’m looking forward to sharing the results of our efforts,” she said of pending service expansion updates.
“By numbers, we measure success by determining if the person graduating from our program re-engages with the criminal justice system within a year of completion,” Blackburn explained, adding more than 80 percent of program graduates don’t end up in the system again, while the rearrest rate in the traditional system is over 50 percent. “That is something the system as a whole must address,” she said.
“Our program is successful, but not perfect,” Blackburn said. “There are times when we lose a client … The losses weigh on us when we ask along with their families what we could have done better or differently.”
“In my court, we answer that question by looking at the client at the end of their time with us and seeing if they are restored,” she continued. “Restoration can have a legal definition through the expungement of their cases and waiving of fines … [W]e have graduated nearly 400 Nashvillians, expunged hundreds of charges and waived hundreds of thousands of dollars in court fines.”
“Restoration for our graduates also has a personal meaning above the legal questions,” Blackburn said. “Is that person healed? Are they sober? Are they reunited with their friends and family? Are they able to get a steady job and good safe housing without worrying about ‘checking the box?’ Are they once again a full participant in their community? Do they have a promising future?
If we can answer those questions with a ‘yes,’ then we have made a difference.”
You can find more information on Judge Blackburn at gscourt.nashville.gov, on Facebook, Twitter (@JudgeBlackburn), and Instagram (@melissablackburn4judge).
For information on the Mental Health and Veterans Courts contact program director Mark Winslow at (615) 862-8320.
Voters must be registered by April 4, with early voting taking place April 13-28 and the primary is May 3.
Find voting information by visiting www.sos.tn.gov.