Newly elected Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez began her tenure this month with a number of reforms that do not reflect the values of the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office, said Sheriff James Hale.

In addition to a pledge to not seek the death penalty in murder cases, Gonzalez has called for an emphasis on alternatives to incarceration. In a memo released to the public this month, Gonzalez said she will not charge simple possession of marijuana offenses, regardless of amount, and will not charge simple possession of user-quantities of other drugs. She also vowed to not charge possession of drug-related-object offenses. Objects that fall under that category include scales, blunts, glass pipes and hypodermic needles.

In the memo, Gonzalez stated, “We will decline to prosecute where we find it is not in the interest of justice to do so.”

Gonzalez described incarceration as “destructive of personal integrity and human potential, destructive of families and communities, inefficient and vastly more expensive than other paths.”

Gonzalez  said her efforts are meant to devote more attention and resources to violent and serious crime. For non-violent offenses, she is a strong proponent of alternatives to incarceration, such as house arrest, rehab and treatment centers and community-based residential programs. 

“This office will take a number of steps to reduce incarceration and shift resources to rehabilitation,” she said. The memo also recommended shorter periods of probation.

“Relying on probation and incarceration alone has not made our state safer or more secure,” she said.

The DA Office will now recommend that defendants charged with non-violent offenses be

released on “own recognizance” bonds, which would not require the posting of money or other security.

“If they are a dangerous, bond should be denied,” said Gonzalez. “You will see that with serious and violent crimes.”

Gonzalez’s memo stated, “For too long, the voices of this community have fallen on deaf ears in the Western Judicial Circuit.”

The Western Judicial Circuit is comprised of Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties.

Speaking of Oconee County, Hale said his views did not align with a lot of the policies outlined in her memo.

First on the death penalty, Hale said, “I do believe there are circumstances in which if there’s a heinous crime, it should be something that’s on the table.”

On drugs, Hale acknowledged that misdemeanor marijuana is “pretty much decriminalized already” but stated there are times when an arrest for misdemeanor marijuana possession is appropriate and necessary.

When asked about other drugs, Hale said the Sheriff’s Office will continue to arrest individuals for all types of drug offenses. He said the Sheriff’s Office will not change its approach to arrests based on the DA’s new policies.

“I know what state law is on these crimes,” said Hale. “I was elected to uphold the laws of this state, and that’s what we will continue to do. It’s my duty to enforce the laws. We are going to have to do our job and do it diligently.”

For more on this story, see the Jan. 14 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, on sale now at convenience stores and grocery stores and newspaper boxes throughout Oconee County. To subscribe, call (706) 769-5175 or visit the tab on our website. 

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