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District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez Faces Critics at Town Hall Meeting

Deborah Gonzalez gives a presentation Mar. 8 at the Athens-Clarke County Library. Credit: Blake Aued

Western Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez faced a hostile crowd during a recent town hall meeting, but was not without her supporters as she defended her record.

Under attack from Republicans both locally and in Atlanta—where state lawmakers have proposed bills to constrain or remove progressive prosecutors like Gonzalez—the DA said that she has done what she campaigned to do by prioritizing violent felonies and ignoring minor drug offenses, despite challenges like a staffing shortage.

Gonzalez said she envisioned the job as an administrative one when she was elected as Clarke and Oconee counties’ top prosecutor in 2020. Now down to five assistant DAs out of 17 positions, the former media lawyer has even stepped into the courtroom herself out of necessity to try criminal cases for the first time. “I might have walked in with no prosecution experience,” she said. “Let me tell you, I have plenty now.”

Low pay, burnout and concerns about inequalities in the criminal justice system have led to a shortage of prosecutors nationwide, according to a 2022 Reuters article. In Georgia, assistant DAs are a mix of state- and county-funded positions, and the county-funded positions in particular pay tens of thousands of dollars less than other nearby circuits, Gonzalez said. She said she has met with Mayor Kelly Girtz and Athens-Clarke County Manager Blaine Williams about the problem, and “they did nothing.”

When Gonzalez recently asked for $267,000 to hire a three-person unit to prosecute gang-related crimes, ACC commissioners were reluctant to grant her the money because she had so many open positions already. But they did approve a study of attorneys’ salaries in the local government and could reconsider the request during this spring’s budget process.

Gonzalez’s critics disapproved of moderator Chaplain Cole Knapper reading questions off of note cards audience members had filled out, and booed when she and Gonzalez said they wouldn’t respond to queries about individual cases. They shouted out more questions and accusations throughout the meeting, attended by about 100 people in the ACC Library auditorium.

Asked why she didn’t take more cases to trial, Gonzalez said that 97% result in a plea bargain—in line with the 95% national average—because there aren’t enough lawyers or courtrooms to try every case. More than 1,800 cases were referred to her office in 2022, on top of a 2,400-case backlog from when courts were closed during the pandemic; about 3,000 were closed. Just 49 went to trial last year. Sometimes police haven’t gathered enough evidence to meet the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for conviction, and other times witnesses are scared to testify, Gonzalez said, adding that she is working with Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock on funding to start a state-level witness protection program.

For some repeat offenders, prison clearly doesn’t work, so it’s better to address the underlying issue, such as addiction or gang recruitment, Gonzalez said. “When they [defendants] get to us in court, it’s too late for many of them,” she said. 

One question involved restorative justice practices, which Gonzalez said brings closure to victims. Another person asked if she had received campaign contributions from liberal billionaire George Soros, who’s often the subject of right-wing conspiracy theories. “No,” was her one-word response.

Gonzalez also reiterated her opposition to GOP bills in the state legislature—supported by her two-time House race opponent, Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens)—that would create a council with the power to remove DAs who refuse to prosecute certain crimes, and would reduce the threshold to recall a DA from 30% of registered voters to 2%. The bills are partisan and unnecessary because DAs already have oversight, she said.

The final question of the evening asked, to applause, if Gonzalez would resign. “I will not resign, because I’m doing the job people elected me to do,” she said, to equal applause. “And I think we’ll end it at that.”