Athens News Matters: Western Circuit DA Shares her Thoughts on Justice Acts in Athens

Oct 15, 2021

Former Georgia State Representative and current Western Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez joins the team to discuss recent fair justice acts in Athens,
Credit nbcnews.com

Since taking office earlier this year, District Attorney

We will hold people accountable, but we will do it in a humane way and therefore, in our toolbox, there's much more than just incarceration.

Deborah Gonzalez has inspired support from some and scathing criticism from others.

Western Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez talks with WUGA's Chris Shupe to share her thoughts on a civilian police oversight board, the growing number of mental health co-responder teams, and the rash of shootings involving youths in Athens.

  This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Chris Shupe:

It seems like we've seen a surge in violent crimes, and especially shootings involving young people in Athens.

Do we know why this is? And what should we be doing to address it?

Deborah Gonzalez:

Thank you for asking that question. You know a couple months ago I put out an op-ed, describing and talking about this very issue of the increase in some violent crimes and the shootings here in our community. And you know one thing that we've seen is that first of all, this is not only here at home, it's happening all over the state and all over the country.

And so you know what I had argued before and continue to argue today is that what that did was really reveal that some of the measures that we had put in place, like after school programs, juvenile outreach things like that, they really worked. And when they were no longer available - when we had nothing for our youth to go to, well then they were out there being unsupervised and went to what was there right?

And you know, for me, that is very concerning and I have spent some of my time working with the community to see what can we do for the , snd then also talking with our elected officials like the Mayor and Commissioner - bringing them different programs, different models of how we can invest in our youth because they do believe that is so important.

We're not taking away weapons, we just want you to put them away so that the young people do not have access to them.

And when we come specifically to the gun violence and the shootings, one of the things and this is [from] Moms Demand Action, lock your doors to your cars please. Because what we're seeing is that kids are just like playing on the handle, seeing if it opens up and then taking stuff that's in the car. And unfortunately, sometimes those are weapons that are left in there.

We're not taking away weapons, we just want you to put them away so that the young people do not have access to them.

Shupe:

When you ran for DA, your platform included not prosecuting juveniles as adults. However, since you took office in January, we've now seen two fifteen-year-olds prosecuted as adults for some serious charges. Why is that?

Gonzalez:

When I put out my day one memo, I've often told people these are aspirations. These are what I hope to achieve while I'm in there. Obviously, this is a system that has been around for hundreds of years before I got here and there are things that are very difficult to change.

So my hope is that we can get it to a place – you know, Germany has a particular model where they do prosecute juveniles as adults, regardless of what the particular crime is. Here, that is not the case, right?

We have to balance out the needs of the, the victims, the victim’s family, [and] the community needs and interest as well. These were two situations, once we spoke with victims and members of the community that we felt the right thing to do was to continue them in Superior Court.

That did not mean that I did not reach out, for example, to juvenile offenders’ advocates to make sure that, at least in one case, one of those fifteen-year-olds would have a mentor to help them through the program as they go forward.

So you know one thing is the prosecution and the second thing is, 

What can we do to make that stay in confinement better and rehabilitative and restorative for the person who has to serve that sentence?

Shupe:

Another part of your platform when you ran was ending cash bail for low level crimes and low risk offenders. Where are we on that and what is the path forward in your mind for cash bail reform?

Gonzalez:

Yeah, and you know I’m very appreciative of the judges both in Magistrate Court [and] in Superior Court because they're the ones who usually see the people first and with low level offenses, they're the ones who set up the bonds.

Wremain committed to trying to get us away from cash bond as possible. When they are felonies, those tend

But if bond is supposed to be here for our safety, then if that person is not a danger, they should not be held in jail.

to be first misdemeanors, where we're able to not have the bond set, but we're now looking at felonies and making sure that if a person is dangerous that they don't get a bond.

But if bond is supposed to be here for our safety, then if that person is not a danger, they should not be held in jail. Because of that, and that is always dependent on the particular circumstances of the case, including the individual, the criminal history, what crimes they are being charged with, what were their circumstances, the victim’s safety as well.

Shupe:

Has there been any movement on getting away from cash bail for these low level offenses in recent cases?

Gonzalez:

Yes, and you will see that a Magistrate Court, you know, will not - they will leave it - it's no longer of your own recognizance; it's a signature bond. They've sort of changed the name, but you see, the judges actually going forward and saying no, we're not going to charge them cash bail.

Shupe:

We know there's been some turnover in your office since January, and we understand you're looking to hire more staff. Has hiring for these positions been difficult, and if so why?

Gonzalez:

Well, first of all, the good news is that we actually have 39 of our 42 positions filled and two of those 42 positions are new ones that I received in in this last budget season. So actually, if you look at that without counting the new ones, we only have 1 vacancy.

But those new ones do include some [Assistant District Attorneys] and this is something that not just I am suffering through trying to find qualified people who will come at a salary that we can afford for them. We are not very competitive, unfortunately, when it comes to salary.

You know there are other counties, for example, that gave quite a big supplement to some of the prosecutors. So I can't compete with Gwinnett who's giving them $24,000 above what the starting salary is, right? But I'm not the only one, it's myself. It's the solicitor general. It’s the county attorney's office. It's the sheriff, the [Police Department] and not just here in Athens.

You know, when I won, I was one of 14 different circuits that changed leadership and so at one point, I think between the elections and January 1st, there were over 400 vacancies in DA offices across the state. I think right now there's still about 41 of those vacancies. So what we're seeing is a lot of turnover and change because of the election.

Two, not being able to be competitive because I'm not getting enough resources from our two counties.

And three, we're also seeing that law students are not going into criminal law as they were, and even less wanting to be prosecutors. And we're hoping to change some of the narrative of what you can do as a prosecutor, and how you can in fact be an incredible asset to the community.

Shupe:

And so what do you look for in a prosecutor?

Gonzalez:

You know first of all, we look for somebody who has the desire to do this kind of work. Somebody who believes, as we do in this office, [that] we will hold people accountable, but we will do it in a humane way and therefore, in our toolbox, there's much more than just incarceration.

There's diversion programs and accountability courts, and there's restorative practices, so there are different ways to hold people accountable. We're looking for people who take initiative, and that want to be engaged with the community itself.

So in our office, volunteering at different community events is very much encouraged, and having our people know and get to know the community as well as the community to get to know our people. I think it's very important, so we are looking for people who have the legal knowhow, but also the people who have a heart for the community in doing this.

Shupe:

Deborah Gonzalez is the District Attorney of the Western judicial Circuit. Thanks so much for making some time today.

Gonzalez:

Absolutely thank you so much for having me, Chris.