The law enforcement official who compared Gov. Nathan Deal to “Lucifer” resigned from the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association after the group disavowed his criticism of the Republican’s proposal to overhaul the state’s cash bail system.
Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said Thursday he told the group he was willing to be “excommunicated” for his remarks, which prompted swift condemnation from legislative leaders and might have jeopardized several measures the association is pushing this year.
Still, he remained vehemently opposed to Deal’s criminal justice changes. Although Sills said he regretted comparing Deal to the devil in an email sent to other sheriffs, he said he would not apologize for writing that the governor has “coddled and fostered” criminals over the last seven years.
“I brazenly confess to writing my genuine sentiments on the subject of our governor’s so-called ‘criminal justice reform,’” he wrote in his resignation letter, “and most assuredly will do so again in the future.”
The sheriff’s comments sparked an outpouring of criticism last week after Deal unveiled the final piece of his eight-year criminal justice package.
As outrage over Sills’ comments grew — House Speaker David Ralston was among the group of prominent lawmakers who condemned his remarks — the association scrambled to make nice. It sent Deal a letter this week apologizing for Sills’ insult, and six members met with the governor and Ralston as well.
“It was a very cordial meeting,” said Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese, the group’s president. “I didn’t know what to expect going in. I think it was worthwhile. Hopefully, we’ve opened the channel of communication.”
While among the most influential groups at the Capitol, the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association has reason to patch things up with the governor and House lawmakers, who expressed outrage over the remarks. The group backs a package of four bills now pending in the House designed to help counties retain more deputies and jailers.
Deese said other law enforcement officials were split over how to handle Sills, a sheriff for 21 years who is known for his outspoken persona. He said many members ultimately argued it was better to sever all ties with the bombastic lawman, who was the organization’s second vice president.
On Thursday, Georgia lawmakers arriving at their desks were greeted with an apology letter from the sheriffs group. In the note, Deese said he wants to make it “exceedingly clear” its members didn’t agree with Sills’ tone.
“We regret his comments have caused insult, and deem them to be inappropriate and unprofessional,” it read.
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It’s unclear if it did the trick: Both Deal and Ralston declined to comment.
Sills’ comments gave a window into the stiff opposition facing Deal. 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. But his final push may be his toughest yet.
That measure, Senate Bill 407, would require judges to consider a defendant’s ability to pay in setting bail and give law enforcement officials more leeway to issue citations instead of criminal charges. Along with a tax relief plan he outlined last week, it’s the most prominent item on the governor’s legislative agenda.
It takes aim at a bail system that has come under increasing scrutiny in Georgia and across the nation. Civil rights groups claim jailing poor people simply because they lack money for bond is unconstitutional, and several lawsuits in Atlanta and elsewhere have challenged the practice. But law enforcement groups are skeptical, worried it could erode their powers.
Sills, meanwhile, said in the interview he was still troubled by the fallout over his remarks. He said he heard from several sheriffs who privately praised him for criticizing the governor’s package and “telling it like it truly is.” He lamented that he’s now the only sheriff in Georgia not part of the association.
Instead, he’s now proposed creating a new advocacy group of sheriffs “who will throw political correctness to the wind” at the Capitol.
“I’m not going to stop,” he added.
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Columnist Jim Galloway contributed to this report.