Coming off of her Dec. 1 victory in the District Attorney run-off election for Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, Deborah Gonzalez unveiled more than 40 policy changes in a legal memo to DA office staff on Jan. 1, effective immediately.
Gonzalez introduced the policy changes to devote more resources to offenders, as a part of her campaign promise to address systemic biases and other issues as DA. These changes include revising the office’s prosecution guidelines, promoting teenage accountability courts for juvenile offenders, establishing a sentencing review project and more.
The DA’s office will review sentences imposed in its circuit and that are currently being served through a sentencing review project. It will no longer sentence offenders to the death penalty, and will not press charges for simple possession of marijuana, regardless of the amount. Instead, the office will encourage the police to issue civil citations for simple marijuana possession instead of criminal arrest.
“The goal of the Office of the District Attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit is to make the people of Clarke and Oconee counties safe,” Gonzalez said in Friday’s memo. “We will do so by seeking justice, bringing balance, fairness and equality to criminal prosecution, and ending this Circuit’s participation in mass incarceration and the school to prison pipeline.”
The office will not issue “trial taxes,” which is the act of pressuring defendants to accept plea deals by pressing more serious charges against them if they reject the office’s plea deal. The office will only charge offenses it intends to prosecute and will recommend cashless bail for defendants charged with non-violent offenses.
The office will also develop restorative justice practices to reduce incarceration levels. Gonzalez said in the memo that while making sentencing recommendations, the office’s prosecutors will account for victims’ need for justice while also accounting for defendants’ need for rehabilitation and reintegration.
“Money invested in renewal is money invested in the future. Money invested in punishment is money invested in the past,” Gonzalez said in the memo. “Over-incarceration destabilizes families and diminishes opportunities for healthy family and work relationships, among many other benefits.”
Gonzalez also said the existing pre-trial diversion program will be expanded and made available to people regardless of their income. All cases will be approached with the possibility of restorative justice as an alternative to conviction.
To increase its accountability, the office will publish statistics about its prosecutions. According to the memo, the data will include the monthly number of felony arrests by police, cases filed by the prosecution each month, pretrial incarceration rates and length of stay, average bond for each class of offense and demographic data.
Guided by the fundamental principle that children in the juvenile system are still cognitively developing, the office will not recommend transferring juveniles to adult court unless required by law. It will also operate on the presumption that, except for felony sexual assault or violent assault with a deadly weapon, children should not be prosecuted for conduct that occurred while at school.
Gonzalez said in the memo that these changes are part of a larger effort to combat the school to prison pipeline, which is the tendency for children, especially students of color, to have early interactions with the criminal justice system through the criminalization of school rule infractions.
“These changes in direction and focus are designed to call more attention and resources to be devoted to the offenders who are driving a significant proportion of serious and violent crime, while reducing the impact on low-level, non-violent or first-time offenders, for whom rehabilitation and second chances will be the goal,” Gonzalez said in the memo.
Click here to read the full memo listing all of the changes.