Marissa McCall, advocate for criminal justice reform, dies at 37

Marissa McCall, once the public policy director at the Southern Center for Human Rights, speaks at a press conference at the John Lewis mural on Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta on Jan. 19. Democratic Georgia state lawmakers held a press conference at the mural on Auburn Avenue to announce the introduction of two bills that would restore the right to vote to felons in Georgia. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Marissa McCall, once the public policy director at the Southern Center for Human Rights, speaks at a press conference at the John Lewis mural on Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta on Jan. 19. Democratic Georgia state lawmakers held a press conference at the mural on Auburn Avenue to announce the introduction of two bills that would restore the right to vote to felons in Georgia. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Helped pass repeal of citizen’s arrest law

There was no missing Marissa McCall’s infectious, disarming smile. And those who came to know her quickly learned she was laser-focused on reforming Georgia’s criminal justice system and had the team-building skills to make it happen.

“She was a force, a powerhouse for change, an advocate for morally grounded policies,” said Georgia Supreme Court Justice Michael Boggs, who spearheaded the state’s criminal justice reform initiatives over the past decade. “She didn’t do this to get credit for legislation being passed. She did it for the sake of making a difference in someone’s life.”

McCall, 37, the public policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, died unexpectedly from as yet unknown causes on May 21.

Foul play is not suspected, said Southern Center attorney Tiffany Roberts, one of McCall’s closest friends.

“We’re all grieving,” Roberts said. “She was so much more than what she did. The things she was proudest about most were being a good friend and a great mother. She was so genuine.”

The Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP, said McCall’s legacy will be felt by all Georgians, especially those who are marginalized.

Rev. James Woodall, State President of Georgia NAACP, at the Georgia State Capitol building in January 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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Rev. James Woodall, State President of Georgia NAACP, at the Georgia State Capitol building in January 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“From folks who are behind bars, to children to women to people of color, she was very intentional about who she showed up for and who she would work on behalf of,” Woodall said. “Marissa provided Georgia with the kind of legal acumen and skill that literally defined an entire generation of criminal justice reform here.”

McCall, who grew up in a Los Angeles suburb, attended Spelman College where she obtained her bachelor of arts degree in political science in 2005. Three years later, she obtained her law degree from Louisiana State University.

In law school, McCall interned for the Georgia Justice Project, a nonprofit that defends the accused and then helps them get jobs and access to social services. After graduating, she returned there and her advocacy led to groundbreaking reforms to the state’s expungement law. This made it easier for people with a criminal history to get a job and turn their lives around.

McCall joined the Southern Center in 2016. She pushed to reform harsh sentencing laws, find alternatives to incarceration, abolish the death penalty and strengthen the state’s public defender system.

State Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican, said he knew as soon as he met McCall that she was a “brilliant attorney who had a true heart to do good.”

As chair of House judiciary committees, Efstration worked with McCall on several issues. This past year, they worked closely on House Bill 479, which McCall helped write and which repealed Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute. The proposal initially was controversial but ended up passing with only one lawmaker voting against it.

03/05/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia —Judiciary Chairman Rep. Chuck Efstration (R-Dacula) addresses the state House of Representatives on March 5. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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03/05/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia —Judiciary Chairman Rep. Chuck Efstration (R-Dacula) addresses the state House of Representatives on March 5. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

“She was able to disarm the arguments against the bill through her knowledge of the issue and her thorough work to understand all perspectives on it,” Efstration said. “She will always be a true model of professionalism. I’m a better person for having known her.”

McCall, who stood behind Gov. Brian Kemp when he signed the citizen’s arrest repeal into law, soon posted her thoughts about it on her Facebook page.

“Unfortunately there aren’t many proud moments at the Capitol, but there was one today,” McCall wrote. “Gov. Kemp signed HB 479 making Georgia the first state in the country to repeal its racist citizen’s arrest law.”

Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, a former state lawmaker, applauded McCall’s work.

“Marissa McCall defended the vulnerable, offered shelter to the ostracized,” Abrams posted on social media. “For 15 years, I witnessed her passion for carving justice out of hate or indifference with a shrewd kindness few possess.”

The Southern Center for Human Rights closed its offices this week so its staff members could mourn McCall’s passing.

“Marissa’s light burned so brightly, illuminating the path forward,” Sara Totonchi, the Southern Center’s executive director, said. “Her sheer brilliance and boundless passion transformed everyone she met and every room she entered.”

Marilynn Winn, head of a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the number of women behind bars, said they met in 2008. Together, they worked to “ban the box” — removing the check box asking job applicants if they have a criminal record.

“Marissa leaves a behind a legacy of power and passion for change,” Winn said. “I will truly miss her and her beautiful smile.”

McCall is survived by her father, David McCall; her mother, Eva K. McCall-Perry; her sister, Danisha McCall; and her son, Arion “AJ” Dodson Jr. Funeral arrangements are not being made public.

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