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Deborah Gonzalez, District Attorney in the Western Judicial Circuit, speaks to the crowd. Dozens of Athens-area residents gathered at the Arch in Athens, Georgia, on March, 27, 2021, for the “Let My People Vote” rally. (Photo/ Kathryn Skeean, kskeean@randb.com)

Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez spoke to the University of Georgia’s Young Democrats in a Q &A via Zoom on Wednesday evening. Speaking from the driver's seat of her car, Gonzalez focused on a message of community and future progress. 

Ramin Zareian, president of Young Democrats and a senior philosophy major, said speaking to local community leaders is important for the organization.

“Local elected officials are always more than willing to talk to us, whether it's the commissioners, the mayor, the state general assembly members or, in this case, the DA,” Zareian said. “A lot of us are people who want to be involved in politics in the long term, and it's good to be able to build these kinds of connections.”

Gonzalez, who was elected in last year’s Dec. 1 runoff, represents both Clarke and Oconee counties. She began the meeting by emphasizing her commitment to the day one memo released by her attorney’s office on Jan. 1. The more than 40 policy changes directed toward the assistant DA’s includes bail reform, sentencing changes and reduced use of probation.

Gonzalez explained the changes implemented in her first four months and the problems that prompted them.

“Georgia is the state with the most people under community supervision. One in 18 Georgians are either in parole, probation or an accountability court system that supervises them,” Gonzalez said. “Originally, these are 15- and 20-year sentences, and right now we’ve gotten them down to five and 10 years. Our goal is to get them to two and three.”

The reforms Gonzalez advocated for have created opposing forces within the region’s justice system, she said. When asked by Young Democrats member Evan Doran what the biggest challenge has been, Gonzalez said many in the public were distrustful of the change. 

“The challenges are really about the fear, mistrust and doubt of what I bring as a progressive prosecutor because it just hasn't been here before,” Gonzalez said.

The conversation of being an outsider continued with a question about Gonzalez’s experience being the first Latino DA in the state of Georgia. 

Gonzalez first urged minorities considering candidacy to run despite the obstacles. “I was told, ‘Oh, you're not Black, you're not white, you’re other. You cannot win. And you know what, we went ahead and did it. We won,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez acknowledged the challenges that minority candidates face, sharing personal stories of attacks on family members and death threats before she circled back to emphasizing future progress. 

“They will do this, but you have to remember why you are running. You want the world to be better because you see that something is wrong and nobody’s doing anything about it,” Gonzalez said.  

Gonzalez was asked about steps the DA's office has taken to strengthen relationships with immigrants in the Clarke and Oconee communities. Gonzalez responded that both relationships with local organizations like the Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition and procedural actions are important.

“We have the U visa process that says if an individual is a victim of a serious crime, they can apply for asylum,” Gonzalez said. “They weren’t done much before I got there and now we are doing more of those than we were doing before, but also being out there and talking with the immigrant  community about what the DA’s office has done.” 

Gonzalez’s memo specifies to the assistant DAs that collateral consequences resulting from charging and prosecution are to be considered when deciding how to present a case involving undocumented victims or witnesses. 

Young Democrats has been affiliated with Gonzalez since her 2017 District 117 state House campaign. When asked about the importance of building lasting relationships with local leaders, Zareian said that it brought a lot of opportunities for members.

“We heard from her last semester as a candidate. Most of our meetings last semester were having candidates speak about what their plans are if elected,” Zareian said. “Now we get the opportunity to follow through and hear what she has done as district attorney.”