Promising “transformative change” while also reaching out to skeptics and opponents of her approach to criminal justice reform, Deborah Gonzalez was sworn in on the courthouse steps Dec. 17 as the new district attorney for Clarke and Oconee counties.
Gonzalez, a former state representative, narrowly defeated prosecutor James Chafin in a Dec. 1 runoff. But her supporters and Chafin’s have common ground: “We all want a safe and thriving community,” she said. “We know the system as it is has not been working.”
Gonzalez also sought to reassure her future employees that “I hear all of you—your hopes, your fears, your concerns,” and promised to have an open door.
Her campaign promises of addressing racial bias in the court system and giving nonviolent offenders another chance are not “an experiment,” but taken from best practices in other cities, Gonzalez said. “We are following a proven path where justice, equity and safety are working hand in hand to create more thriving communities,” she said.
Introducing Gonzalez, supporter Shane Sims held himself out as the kind of person she will help. Sims had two crack-addicted parents, a child and had lost his job when, desperate, he committed an armed robbery at age 17 in which one of his friends shot and killed a clerk, by his account. A warden took Sims under his wing, and he was paroled in 2016 after serving 20 years in prison. He is now a chaplain for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department and heads a substance-abuse recovery nonprofit.
“What Deborah Gonzalez represents in this office is a restorative component society has long ago lost sight of,” Sims said.
Gonzalez also noted the historic nature of her election. She is the first minority and first woman to serve as DA in the Western Circuit, the first Latina DA in Georgia and the first female Puerto Rican DA in the U.S.
Gonzalez will not officially take office until Jan. 1. In the meantime, she and her team will be working to “outline significant reforms and policy changes that will take effect on Day 1 and throughout my tenure,” she said.
“I can’t wait to start doing the work I promised to do for you,” she said. “Justice was on the ballot. Now justice is on the agenda.”
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