New D.A. Commits to Fixing Georgia’s ‘Backdoor to Incarceration’

The new DA of Athens wants to bring down Georgia’s sky-high probation rate. She also announced an end to marijuana prosecutions and the death penalty.

Katie Jane Fernelius   |    January 11, 2021

Deborah Gonzalez

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Shortly after taking office, a Georgia district attorney has unveiled sweeping changes to the local criminal legal system. DA Deborah Gonzalez, who was elected in Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties on a progressive platform in December after a heated campaign, issued a memo earlier this month outlining extensive reforms that turn away from harsh punishment. 

Among other measures, her office will stop prosecuting people for simple possession of marijuana, decline to prosecute or divert other low-level drug possession cases, and limit charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences. Gonzalez also rules out ever seeking the death penalty

Some of the most important transformations, though, concern probation, an issue that is particularly significant in Georgia: The state has the highest population of people on probation in the country, with more than 400,000 individuals under community supervision in 2018.

Gonzalez’s memo aims to significantly reduce probation; it lays out plans to avoid charging people for technical violations of probation, and to shorten probation terms. 

“Probation is this back door into incarceration,” Gonzalez told The Appeal: Political Report. “We [prosecutors] have the power and authority to make many of those fixes that are part of the problem and the causes of mass incarceration … we want to hold people accountable, but we want to do it in a humane way.”

Gonzalez joins a growing wave of progressives who are taking over DA offices. Last year, reform-minded prosecutor candidates won elections in New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Austin, Texas, among other places. Now, some are quickly enacting the policies they championed on the campaign trail. This week, Eli Savit, the newly elected prosecutor of Washtenaw County, Michigan (Ann Arbor) announced his office would not seek cash bail. In December, George Gascón, the new DA of Los Angeles County, set forth a wide-ranging slate of reforms.

In Athens, Gonzalez’s victory is the latest in a string of progressive wins for local offices. A groundswell of grassroots organizing has helped elect progressive candidates to local office and made criminal justice reform a focal point.

Gonzalez says she was inspired to address probation after meeting with members of the Athens Reentry Collaborative, a community of individuals affected by incarceration and the criminal legal system. She learned that though probation was an alternative to incarceration, it still burdens people with surveillance, bills, and stigma. 

“They’re not incarcerated, but [probation] can affect their ability to get a job, it can affect their ability to get a school loan, or even be accepted into certain schools,” Gonzalez said. “Probation affects whether they can get their kids back, if they lost custody, because they’re still technically serving [a sentence], even though they’re free.”

In its original conception, probation “was meant to be rehabilitative in the sense that folks on probation were to be given the opportunity to change their behavior and reform their lives without having their liberty deprived of them,” said Sarah Shannon, a University of Georgia sociology professor and one of the coordinators of the collaborative.

But that’s not the reality, Shannon said. People on probation talk about its “many hoops” as “almost being double or triple punishment,” she added. 

The rules of probation can be onerous, requiring weekly meetings with officers, drug testing, and other forms of surveillance and monitoring. Many of these requirements come with costs, on top of a standard, monthly probation fee. Probation officers can choose to waive the monthly fees, but other costs brought on by the terms of probation—like ankle monitoring services and drug tests—can add up.

“If you are sentenced to an anger management or family violence class, those fees are up to you,” said Shannon. “So your inability to pay for those things may mean that you can’t successfully complete your probation.” 

Simple violations of such probation terms, like missing a bill or an appointment, could result in jail time––what probation sentences arguably seek to avoid. 

“So when you think about the number of conditions that you have to meet, then that’s the number of opportunities that you have to fail, and therefore end up for a long period of time being vulnerable to being incarcerated anyway,” Shannon said.

Many counties handle misdemeanor probation through private companies like Sentinel Offender Services. This was part of a larger push within Georgia, starting in the 1990s, to trim local budgets by outsourcing misdemeanor probation management. But it created a profit motive that can lead to probation companies neglecting the rights of indigent defendants. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that probation generally cannot be revoked, resulting in incarceration, if an individual is unable to pay their fines and fees despite attempting to do so. However, there is no statewide standard for poverty in these cases and many courts delegate that determination to probation companies. Recent lawsuits in Georgia found that Sentinel threatened to jail indigent probationers for their inability to pay, and it unlawfully collected fees.

Though private companies don’t handle misdemeanor probation in Athens-Clarke or Oconee counties, there’s still a problem of technical probation violations landing people in jail. Gonzalez has purview over misdemeanor probation in Oconee (in Athens-Clarke it’s the responsibility of a Solicitor General), and she wants to avoid revoking probation for technical violations—like failed drug tests or failure to pay fees. She also wants to build on existing efforts to bring down the cost of probation; for example, judges have set up a fund to offset the financial burden for people on probation.

Gonzalez also will cap probation at two or three years, depending on the circumstances. 

Georgia not only has the largest number of people on probation, it also has the longest probation sentences, with an average of more than six years in 2016. More than one-third of people on probation serve sentences longer than 10 years. 

“What we see with these extremely long probation sentences is that it is more punitive than anything,” Gonzalez said. She said it’s possible for someone sentenced to 10 years on probation to complete nine years without incident, commit a technical violation in the last year, and go to prison for a decade. 

Gonzalez’s new policies of not prosecuting marijuana possession and some low-level drug possession cases would also reduce the number of people who receive probation terms in the first place. Marijuana arrests have disproportionately targeted Black residents in Athens.

Gonzalez’s path to the prosecutor’s office was a rocky one. She was elected despite Governor Brian Kemp’s attempts to cancel last year’s DA election for Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, which would have effectively ensured that the interim DA, Democrat Brian Patterson, could stay in office for another two years. Gonzalez sued Kemp, resulting in a unanimous decision from the Georgia Supreme Court upholding the need for an election.

Gonzalez’s success is emblematic of local politics in Athens, which has seen a rising tide of progressivism. In 2014, Tim Denson, an activist in the Occupy Movement, ran for mayor on promises to cut the city’s poverty rate in half and provide free bus service and affordable child care. Though he didn’t win, Denson went on to form a political group called Athens For Everyone, which, along with other groups like the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, has become a force shaping local government.

In 2018, Athens for Everyone helped get six progressive candidates, including Denson, elected to seats on the Athens-Clarke County Commission, and also endorsed Kelly Girtz, who won the mayoral race. These candidates have largely championed policies to address racial inequity, climate change, living wages, affordable housing, and criminal justice reform. 

Commissioner Mariah Parker, who made national news when she was sworn in on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” was instrumental in passing a measure last year that ended cash bail for violations of local ordinances. She and Denson have also pushed to decriminalize marijuana and end the use of unpaid jail labor. These measures have the support of the new Athens sheriff, John Williams, who was also elected in 2020 after ousting an incumbent in the Democratic primary on promises of not accepting donations from the bail bonds industry and ending cooperation with ICE. 

Erin Stacer, president of Athens for Everyone, says these progressive wins were the product of years of work by local activists. “It was really the organizers around town who engaged people in a way that got them … to start realizing that there is a local government and that they have a say,” she said.

“This is about human lives,” she added. “This is about changing people and changing our systems, so that we do not destroy people, but rather look at them as part of our society.”