Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice system overhaul might be his defining policy initiative. But the response from one prominent sheriff about his final push offers a hint at the opposition he still faces.
Hours before Deal gave a hearty endorsement to his measure, Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills sent a note to leaders of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association trying to rally the group to “vehemently” oppose the bill.
“NEVER, never, in this state’s history has the criminal element been coddled and fostered as it has been over the last 7 years,” wrote Sills, who confirmed to the AJC that he penned the email.
“This governor has done more for those who perpetrate crime than Lucifer and his demons combined,” he added, “and every piece of his criminal justice reform that has been passed into law has complicated or burdened our duties and/or endangered the citizenry of our state.”
The measure’s supporters quickly used the comments as a rallying cry to back Deal’s proposal, and several legislators from both parties took the floor of the House on Thursday to condemn Sills’ remarks.
Republican Rep. Scot Turner, visibly upset, called on the sheriffs association to censure Sills.
"Are you serious? Because we treat people as human beings in the criminal justice system that we somehow are worse than Lucifer, than the devil?” he said. “That's changing lives. That's not worse than Satan."
State Rep. Christian Coomer, one of the chamber’s top Republicans, said lawmakers should take the comments as a personal affront. They should be proud, he said, that “we’ve gone from the number one state to do time to the number one state in the nation to do business.”
He added: “When we are working to improve the lives of the least among us ... we are doing good. Woe to those who call that evil.”
Democratic state Rep. Al Williams compared Sills to a bully.
“I’m absolutely ashamed it might be on national television that we elected a sheriff like that,” he said, adding to laughs: "By the way, I won’t make any plans to drive through that county.”
And House Speaker David Ralston offered his own scathing review.
“When I read those comments this morning, I got sick to my stomach. Few things in my public career have I found as disgusting and deplorable as that statement made by a man who wears a badge,” said Ralston. “They are wrong, and they are an embarrassment to an honorable profession.”
Deal’s measure is the last piece of an eight-year package. He’s championed earlier legislation to expand accountability courts, give judges more discretion over sentencing, divert more nonviolent offenders from prison and boost funding for re-entry programs for released inmates.
This measure, Senate Bill 407, would give judges more leeway to forgo cash bail for poor defendants accused of low-level offenses and give law enforcement officials flexibility to issue citations instead of criminal charges.
The association hasn’t yet taken a formal stance, though director Terry Norris said many sheriffs have expressed concerns about it. Sills wrote in his plea that there shouldn’t be much debate.
“In the year 2018 it appears we stand alone with our duty to protect the lives, persons, property, health, and morals of the people, as we answer to the people and are not beholding to a tyrant who is apparently hell bent to accomplish the antithesis of our duty,” he wrote.
The governor said in a statement the legislation would lay the “foundation for a more equitable criminal justice system and bring us another step forward in making Georgia a safer, more prosperous place to call home.”
Some sheriffs are already on tense terms with Deal over his initiative last year that boosted state law enforcement pay by 20 percent but didn’t include salary hikes for deputies or city police. Another sheriff, Butch Reece of Jones County, slammed “King Nathan” last year over the raises.
Here’s Sills’ entire dispatch:
NEVER, never, in this state’s history has the criminal element been coddled and fostered as it has been over the last 7 years. This governor has done more for those who perpetrate crime than Lucifer and his demons combined, and every piece of his criminal justice reform that has been passed into law has complicated or burdened our duties and/or endangered the citizenry of our state.
I didn’t need to read anything past the point of “first time felons to get 12 month probation” to know that I stand in firm opposition to this bill. In the year 2018 it appears we stand alone with our duty to protect the lives, persons, property, health, and morals of the people, as we answer to the people and are not beholding to a tyrant who is apparently hell bent to accomplish the antithesis of our duty. Our wise forefathers placed the office we hold in the protective bosom of our constitution just so we could speak out against those who endanger the public we endeavor to protect.
My vote is to vehemently oppose Senate Bill 407 and I implore every sheriff to call and write their senators and very clearly voice their opposition to it today!