DA candidates of color seek different approach to punishing crimes

Following the high-profile killings of Black people, such as the February death of Ahmaud Arbery, several candidates across Georgia — many who are Black or Latino — are running for district attorney with plans to change the way cases are prosecuted. File photo.
Following the high-profile killings of Black people, such as the February death of Ahmaud Arbery, several candidates across Georgia — many who are Black or Latino — are running for district attorney with plans to change the way cases are prosecuted. File photo.

How prosecutors handled the cases of people accused of killing Black men and women in a series of incidents this year has renewed calls to overhaul the criminal justice system and put a spotlight on the person who decides when someone should be charged — the district attorney.

Social justice activists have highlighted what they say is a need to elect prosecutors who stray from the traditional “tough on crime” stances that many district attorneys have touted for decades.

Several candidates across the state — many who are Black or Latino — are running with plans to focus on addressing a system they say is harsher on those who are low-income or people of color.

Doug Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project, said prosecutors have spent 30 years campaigning on who was going to lock up more criminals. The Georgia Justice Project provides legal defense to low-income people charged with crimes, mostly in metro Atlanta.

“Now, we’re finding prosecutors who say, ‘Are we going to be tough on crime, or are we going to be smart on crime?’" Ammar said. “It’s what happens with criminal records. It’s what happens post release. ... Are we helping society be safer or not? They’re saying, ‘Our role as prosecutors is not solely based on 'Do we prosecute everybody to the nth degree?’ ”

Being “smart on crime” is central to the platform of Jared Williams, a Black Democrat running for district attorney in the Augusta Judicial District. He is challenging Republican incumbent Natalie Paine, who is white. Paine did not respond to requests for comment.

Jared Williams is a Democrat running for district attorney in the Augusta Judicial District. Handout.
Jared Williams is a Democrat running for district attorney in the Augusta Judicial District. Handout.

Williams said prosecutors need to focus more on reducing crime and not just reacting to it. For example, he wants to partner with business owners, community leaders and educators to connect nonviolent first-time offenders with jobs and education.

“The fewer people that come back to the system, that means their record stays clean, they’re in their child’s life because they’re not locked up for a nonviolent drug offense and the child is raised by two parents,” he said. “All these things are interconnected: poverty, education and the criminal justice system. We have to address all of them if we’re going to have a safer community.”

Some candidates running this year have said they hope to expand on work Nathan Deal did when he was governor to overhaul the criminal justice system, which included changes such as reducing certain nonviolent felonies to misdemeanor offenses and implementing accountability courts for drug offenders or people who missed child support payments.

Terry Norris, a lobbyist for the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, said many of the changes to the criminal justice system have hurt crime victims.

“We often see victims left out of the discussion. So by the prosecution deciding how the case should be resolved, it may not always fit the needs in terms of support for that victim," he said. “It also doesn’t generally make people more safe. Laws are there for a reason. If we’re not going to insist on compliance with the law, then what purpose do our laws even serve?”

Prosecutors have gained greater public attention after no or limited charges were initially filed in the high-profile deaths of Black men and women.

In Kentucky, activists decried a decision by the state’s top prosecutor, a Black Republican, not to ask a grand jury to consider charges relating to the shooting death of Breonna Taylor — a Black woman who was shot and killed by police while sleeping in her bed when officers executed a “no knock” warrant. Instead, he asked them to consider indicting officers on charges of shooting into neighboring residences.

In Georgia, Waycross District Attorney Greg Barnhill initially told police not to charge the three white men who followed Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, leading one to shoot and kill him. Barnhill later recused himself from the case, and the men have since been charged with murder in the death of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man.

The deaths led to a rallying cry to elect new district attorneys.

Acting Western Judicial District Attorney Brian Patterson, a Democrat, said he welcomes interest in the office.

Brian Patterson, the acting DA in the Western Judicial District, is a Democrat running to permanently hold the office. Handout.
Brian Patterson, the acting DA in the Western Judicial District, is a Democrat running to permanently hold the office. Handout.

“The district attorney is a very serious legal job,” said Patterson, who is white. “There are thousands and thousands of legal decisions that are made every year that affect the lives of victims, witnesses (and) defendants.”

Patterson, who has worked for the district attorney’s office for 18 years, said he is proud to have been part of the work done in the Athens-based district to overhaul the office, including establishing some of the state’s first accountability courts and pre-trial diversion programs.

“For 15 to 20 years, we’ve been a very progressive community about thinking about alternative ways to address why someone might have been accused of breaking the law,” he said. “But we also can’t be in the business of picking defendants over victims. We have to focus on the evidence and the truth and the rule of law.”

Deborah Gonzalez, a former state House representative, is running as a Democrat in the Western Judicial District's race for DA. Handout.
Deborah Gonzalez, a former state House representative, is running as a Democrat in the Western Judicial District's race for DA. Handout.

Deborah Gonzales, a Democrat and former state representative running to become the top prosecutor, said the district attorney’s office did not often use the accountability courts. Gonzalez, who is Latina, said the “tough on crime” stance of many district attorneys does not help reduce the number of repeat offenders.

“It’s not just being punitive and throwing the kitchen sink at somebody, but really making sure that how we hold them accountable is in balance and proportional to the crime that they’ve committed,” she said. “And even when they’re being held accountable, that it is done in such a way that does not create better criminals, but actually leads to rehabilitation and leads to peace.”

James Chafin is running as a third-party candidate in the race for Western Judicial District attorney. Handout.
James Chafin is running as a third-party candidate in the race for Western Judicial District attorney. Handout.

James Chafin, who is running as a third-party candidate in the district, also said the district attorney’s office needs to make better use of programs available to those who’ve been accused of crimes.

“There are a lot of people who come into the court system who are good people who’ve made a mistake. They’re nonviolent. And they own up to the mistake and move on,” said Chafin, a deputy assistant district attorney. “The mistakes I’m talking about are fueled by other issues people may have — addiction, mental health and poverty. ... We need to give people the tools so they can succeed and move past these issues."

In the Cobb Judicial District, incumbent Republican District Attorney Joyette Holmes, who is Black, has supported what some would call “progressive” policies, such as removing low-level crimes from criminal records. Holmes, who is now acting as the special prosecutor in the Arbery murder case, did not respond to requests for comment.

Her opponent, Black Democrat Flynn Broady, also has some “progressive” stances but stressed he wouldn’t go easy on criminals.

Flynn Broady is a Democrat running for Cobb Judicial District attorney. Handout.
Flynn Broady is a Democrat running for Cobb Judicial District attorney. Handout.

“Just because you’re focused on restorative justice doesn’t mean you’re not tough on crime,” he said. “There’s violent offenders, and there are those that are nonviolent. As DA your ultimate goal is public safety. You can’t continue to do that if you take simple (drug) possession charges and throw people in jail.”

Norris, the lobbyist for the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, said he worried about having “activist district attorneys” in office who could expand on changes made during Deal’s tenure.

“Reform of the criminal justice system has not been as successful as everybody makes it out to be,” he said. “There are some benefits, but, by and large, it has served to protect and help those who choose not to abide by the law.”

Steve Bright, a criminal law professor at Yale University and former director of the Atlanta-based nonprofit Southern Center for Human Rights, said voters who want to continue to overhaul the criminal justice system should begin by looking at their district attorneys.

“I think there are probably lots of people who have real questions about whether mass incarceration is the answer to all the problems that we have with regard to crime and punishment,” Bright said. “I think the fact that this is happening in other (states), it’s inevitable it’s going to come to Georgia as well, because it’s the same forces that are at play.”

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