OPINION: Has Fani Willis turned GOP pols into social justice warriors?

A police motorcycle is seen entering the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2023. (Miguel Martinez/AJC)

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

A police motorcycle is seen entering the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2023. (Miguel Martinez/AJC)

Sometimes the news carries a delicious nugget of surprise.

The latest? Republican state senators’ sudden interest in Fulton County’s jail, along with its top prosecutor.

Now, it’s no surprise that GOP senators are mad at District Attorney Fani Willis and have filed a complaint against her with the newly created Prosecuting Attorneys Qualification Commission. That board was created this year by legislators to be able to reprimand “rogue” (as in “woke”) DAs they allege are not doing their job.

In the senators’ minds, Willis fits that bill due to her efforts in indicting Donald Trump and his merry band of election deniers.

But what caused me to do a double take was the senators’ reasoning behind the effort to go after Madam DA. In a letter to the editor in the AJC, they castigated Willis for her “complicity in the humanitarian crisis at the Fulton County jail.”

The jail has long been overcrowded, disgusting and dangerous, a point noted by the senators. They even quoted a 2022 report written by the chronic do-gooders at the ACLU, with help from those at the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The report, the senators noted, “found that 515 inmates had been in the jail 90 days or longer without an indictment,” including 83 held for more than a year without indictment and seven for more than two years.

“Willis’s lack of action on these suspects has had deadly consequences,” they wrote.

Atlanta leaders shocked at conditions inside Fulton County Jail

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So far this year, at least 10 inmates have died in the custody of Fulton County.

Not only are GOP senators blaming Willis, but they also have called for a Senate investigation into the facility. It is set to begin next month.

This leads to my surprise and amazement. Since when have conservative GOP senators become bleeding hearts and social justice warriors?

For years, police, the public and politicians, especially conservative ones, have complained about the “revolving door” at Fulton’s jail. Now, that door has seemingly been slammed shut and people are dying.

And with this, conservative senators are joining their newfound friends at the ACLU to demand that the clog in the judicial system be cleared.

Republicans contend that if Willis spent her time on the backlog of criminal cases rather than going after Trump, maybe the jail wouldn’t be as jammed. Interestingly, there was no mention of the slow-moving racketeering case against rapper Young Thug and a bunch of accused gang members. Jury selection in that case began in January and is still dragging on.

That’s different, I suppose.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks to journalists about a federal grant that is allowing her office and the Atlanta Police Department to increase work on the backlog of rape kits during a press conference in Atlanta on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023.   (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

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Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

A further reading of the ACLU report states that inmates’ inability to raise money for bail is keeping the cells packed.

The ACLU says 196 people with bail set at $20,000 or less had remained in custody for more than 90 days. Additionally, 121 had been in jail for more than six months and 58 for more than a year.

That’s terrible. People accused of a crime should be adjudicated in a reasonable amount of time. Reducing the need for cash bail has been a rallying cry on the left for years.

To that point, I must mention Senate Bill 63, a Republican-sponsored bill would have mandated a cash or property bond for 50-some crimes, including marijuana possession, unlawful assembly, theft, fighting and a second offense of trespassing.

Republican state Sen. Randy Robertson, a former lawman, was behind that bill this year, saying lawmakers must “take the revolving doors off of our jails.” Almost all his GOP colleagues agreed and quickly hit the green button while voting. The measure later stalled in the House but will no doubt return next year, as it is an election year.

GOP Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch was a sponsor of SB 63 and one of the politicians quoting the ACLU. He sees no disconnect. The legislation to mandate cash bail “was all about accountability” to ensure those charged with crimes show up in court.

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones talks with Sen. Majority Leader Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, as SB 140 is discussed in the Senate Chambers during Crossover day at the State Capitol on Monday, March 6, 2023, in Atlanta. SB 140 prohibits medical professionals from giving transgender children certain hormones or surgical treatment that assists them in aligning with their gender identity. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

He has a point. When Atlanta municipal courts largely did away with cash bail a few years ago, no-shows skyrocketed.

“Your newspaper has talked about conditions at the jail for quite some time,” Gooch told me. “It’s troubling. Why have the conditions deteriorated so badly that the walls there are crumbling?”

Gooch said the activities of Fulton judges and jailers will be investigated but added that Willis seems to be the key. “The DA has a lot to do with how that system operates,” he said.

He said the investigative subcommittee will be led by state Sen. John Albers, who is one of the more bipartisan conservatives of an increasingly right-wing lot.

With the GOP’s new concern on the plight of the incarcerated, I called Gerry Weber, who for three decades has toiled as a lawyer for the ACLU and now the Southern Center for Human Rights.

He noted Republicans have long been in the lock-’em-up camp but “now they have shifted focus. That’s quite a change of heart.”

“My sense is where have you been for the past 30 years?” Weber asked. ”This belated interest in the Futon County jail just doesn’t smell right.”

Sniff, sniff. I smell politics cooking.