News From Your DA’s Office
Western Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, serving Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties
Vol. 1, No. 1 July 2021
Since taking office in January 2021, District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez has worked to implement the justice agenda the people of Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties embraced. She issued her Day One Memo on her first day in office and over the past six months she has worked to implement that visio
BIG NEWS: DA Initiative Brings Major Reforms and New Drug Treatment Resources to Athens
The Western Circuit District Attorney’s office and local community group People Living in Recovery (PLR) today announced that the Vera Institute of Justice had selected them as one of only 10 local prosecutor/community partnerships in the nation for participation in the Institute’s Motion for Justice initiative.
The goal of the program is to reduce racial disparities in the Athens-Clarke/Oconee criminal legal system by at least 20 percent over the next year.
Motion for Justice is based on the values of justice, racial equity and community well-being. As part of the program, the Vera Institute for Justice, a leading national organization for reform of the criminal legal system, will assist the District Attorney’s office in establishing a diversion program that will develop procedures for identifying appropriate cases to decline to prosecute. Identifying defendants who do not pose a significant public safety concern and promoting racial equity will be the primary goals of the diversion program. Vera will provide the DA’s office with data analysis, staff training, community engagement support, and policy expertise.
Under the initiative, the DA’s office has partnered with PLR, an Athens-based community organization that offers drug treatment services. PLR Executive Director Shane Sims will co-lead the project along with the District Attorney. In addition, PLR will provide treatment services for participants in the program using funds provided by the Vera Institute.
A Leadership Team Dedicated to Justice and a Safe, Healthy Community
Since taking office in January, DA Gonzalez has focused on building a team of talented, experienced professionals who share her vision. This team of leaders in now in place. They are committed to public safety, justice and strengthening our community.
Chief Assistant District Attorney Mikaela Henderson is an experienced trial attorney who has handled over 60 major felony jury trials as lead counsel. She has worked as a supervising attorney in both the Gwinnett and DeKalb County DA’s offices and as a public defender. Mikaela works closely with DA Gonzalez and the team of Assistant District Attorneys to implement the DA’s reform agenda.
Chief Investigator Felicia Fortson is one of the most experienced and respected law enforcement professionals in Northeast Georgia. She has served the people of Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties in the DA’s office for more than 20 years.
Director of Victims’ Services Tanya Wingfield has worked with and advocated for victims of crime in Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties – especially women and children – for over eight years. She joined the DA’s office from ally community organization Project Safe. Tanya leads a team of advocates who are ready to help victims of crime in one of the most challenging times of their lives.
In the Courtroom
The COVID pandemic has presented a tremendous challenge for all parts of the legal system. At its height, it was impossible to conduct trials in a safe manner, but the need to seek justice, accountability and to protect the rights of the accused remained urgent. Given the importance of carrying out this vital work, this March your DA’s office worked with the local judges to become one of the first circuits in the state to resume the work of grand juries and felony jury trials, before the statewide Judicial Emergency ended. Addressing the most serious cases first has been a priority, and this office has secured guilty verdicts in several murder cases since trials resumed.
In addition, when the Southern Center for Human Rights contacted the DA’s office on behalf of Athenian Spratt Howard, their client who had served over 25 years of a life without possibility of parole sentence for an armed robbery, DA Gonzalez examined the record and agreed that it supported a new sentence of time served. Mr. Howard was originally sentenced under a “three strikes” law; his two previous convictions had been for nonviolent offenses. Judge Lawton Stephens, who was the judge responsible for the original sentence, agreed and handed down the new sentence. The resentencing took place in the Oconee County Courthouse. To read more, visit this article by the Athens Banner-Herald.
In the Community
DA Gonzalez is out in the community every week supporting community groups and lifting up our leaders. In addition to her partnership with Shane Sims and People Living in Recovery, DA Gonzalez supports community organizations with her time and by establishing the Justice is on the Agenda Fund to provide resources to these groups who do such great work for our youth.
Reform Across America
DA Gonzalez is bringing evidence-based reforms to Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties. Other reform-minded DA’s across the country are doing this same work.
A study of misdemeanor cases in Suffolk County, MA found that people who are not prosecuted for nonviolent misdemeanors are much less likely to find themselves in a courtroom again within two years. The study’s authors concluded that “entanglement with the legal system itself seems to be a risk factor for future criminal prosecution.”
Georgia has the highest per capita probation rate of any state in the country. In her Day One Memo, DA Gonzalez emphasized the need to reduce the length of terms of probation and to tailor probation to enhance public safety, not increase punishment. Other states are taking this same approach. Virginia passed a law that will set limits on probation sentences, with a maximum of one year for misdemeanors and five years for felonies. In Philadelphia, DA Larry Krasner has advised prosecutors to not seek probation past 36 months for felonies, and 12 months for misdemeanors, which has cut their number of citizens on probation by 33%. The difference between probation sentences of Black and white defendants has decreased by 50%.
Meet the People of the DA’s Office
The DA’s office can do good work because it has people in it who work hard to serve our community. And when they leave work, they like to relax and have fun just like you.
Victim Advocate Alice Hayes likes writing, gardening, home renovation/DIY, baking, sewing, and recently started embroidery. She modestly says that she “plays guitar terribly and sings okay, sometimes in public.” And she loves taking pictures of her dog Baloo.
Special Victims Unit Investigator Erika Murphy loves to explore nature in her kayak.