website average bounce rate

Savannah nonprofit director says new law is stagnating criminal justice reform i

A lawsuit filed in August in Fulton County on behalf of the district attorneys from the Augusta Judicial Circuit, Towaliga Judicial Circuit, Dekalb and Cobb Counties, against five members of the Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission, contends that S.B. 92, the law that created the commission and allows members to discipline and remove district attorneys, “chills prosecutors from articulating their philosophies to their communities.”

Among the affidavits filed as part of that lawsuit is one by Coco Papy, director of public policy and communications at Deep Center, a creative arts and social justice nonprofit focused on youth advocacy and legislative reform.

In the affidavit, Papy alleges that projects brought forth by Deep Center to the Chatham County District Attorney have stagnated due to S.B. 92. Among those projects:

  • The Chatham County Jail case backlog, which came as the result of COVID-19-induced delays and assistant district attorney staffing shortages, has not been fully-addressed, even as the DA has secured American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to hire more ADAs by the county, according to the affidavit. More specifically, “a rapid trial docket which would rely on ADA discretion to dispose of cases more quickly and leniently” has not “come to fruition.”

  • Deep Center’s pre-arrest diversion program — which would “divert people cited or charged on a first offense or on a quality-of-life offense, such as disorderly conduct or vagrancy, into programming” — has stalled, despite “initial support” and “apparent funding” from the DA, according to the affidavit.

  • Two fines and fees projects have also stalled, according to Papy. The first version “encouraged District Attorney Jones’ office to wipe away any discretionary fine or fee that would negatively impact an individual’s financial well-being.” Following the introduction of S.B. 92, the DA’s office “expressed reluctance” to work on the project. In response, Deep Center suggested a “modified project,” which “asked to focus on the creation of a form assessing the financial status of a defendant. The form is meant to gauge the impact of a fine or fee and be used to inform decisions made by either the ADA or the court or both.”

More: Gov. Kemp signs prosecutors oversight commission into law at Chatham County Sheriff’s Office

More: ‘We have factors to balance’: Chatham County District Attorney on low rate of prosecutions

Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones participates in a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters at the Coastal Georgia Center.

Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones participates in a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters at the Coastal Georgia Center.

Jones’ take on the situation is different from Papy’s, however. After reviewing the affidavit, which she said she was unaware of and that Papy did not consult on with her, Jones responded via text:

“I will say that SB92 has certainly had a chilling effect on prosecution but not in the ways Ms. Papy has outlined. So, I agree with part of the statement, but have a different view on the underlying facts,” Jones wrote in a series of Aug. 28 texts. “Cash bail, pre-trial diversion and [fines] and fees don’t have anything to do with SB92 in my opinion.”

“As the District Attorney, she’s certainly welcome to hold that opinion,” Papy said in a Sept. 6 phone call. “Given the work that we have done on S.B. 92, and how much we pushed back on it during session, we think that any piece of legislation or any law that sort of infringes upon a prosecutor’s independence on what they can and cannot do based off of any partisan position just feels dangerous.”

Jones among those calling S.B. 92 ‘unconstitutional’

Gov. Brian Kemp signed S.B. 92 at the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office on May 5, at a time when Jones faced increased scrutiny for pleading down, or reducing, murder convictions to lesser charges, such as manslaughter. Soon after the bill’s signing, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr held a meeting of his statewide anti-gang network with coastal law enforcement officials. Jones was noticeably absent among the attendees.

Since taking office in January 2021, Jones has faced a backlog of cases, exacerbated by the COVID-19 shutdown of courts, staffing shortages ― including the resignation of seasoned assistant district attorneys ―  and accusations of fostering a discriminatory culture within the office.

Jones has been a vocal critic of S.B. 92, calling it government overreach at a roundtable discussion of legal issues hosted by the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus at Savannah State University on July 21, according to a Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) report.

On Sept. 5, Jones joined 84 current and former prosecutors, attorneys general, U.S. attorneys and Department of Justice officials, in signing an amicus brief as part of the lawsuit that urges the court to declare S.B. 92 unconstitutional.

There are no hearings scheduled yet in the case.

Drew Favakeh is the public safety and courts reporter for the Savannah Morning News. You can reach him at [email protected].

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Chatham County District Attorney says S.B. 92 has had chilling effect