Rosemary Greene says upcoming gubernatorial election could have major impact on criminal justice reforms

District attorney sees 'pendulum' swing on Georgia laws

Posted

Georgia's law books looked quite a bit different when Cartersville native Rosemary Greene got her start as an attorney about 18 years ago. Then, she said, burglary and forgery constituted standalone crimes; now, Georgia recognizes three categories of burglary and no less than four different degrees of forgery — including one that only counts as a misdemeanor.

And those aren't the only changes that Greene, who has served as the district attorney for the Cherokee Judicial Circuit since being elected in 2012, has observed over the last two decades within the state's legal system.

"That pendulum that started back with Zell Miller and the 'lock them up,' 'three strikes, you're out,' and boot camp programs, we're moving the other way now," she said at Tuesday's Bartow Business Women Luncheon at the Cartersville-Bartow County Chamber of Commerce. 

"By the time my children are my age, I believe that marijuana will be legal here in the state of Georgia — we're moving in a completely different direction."

Greene became the first female district attorney of the Cherokee Judicial Circuit, comprising Bartow and Gordon counties, almost six years ago. 

"Throughout the state of Georgia now, we have more female, elected district attorneys than ever before," she said. "Rome is a female, Cherokee County is a female. Pickens, Blue Ridge … Columbus, Savannah, Augusta, all of that area is all female."

Greene succeeded Joe Campbell, who retired as the circuit's district attorney in 2012.

"I grew up in Cartersville, and my dad was an attorney here in town," Greene said. "As a small child, I would go up to the courthouse — the old courthouse at that time, the beautiful gold dome building — and watch cases, and I knew that I always wanted to be an attorney, but more specifically, I always wanted to be a prosecutor."

The local district attorney's office currently consists of Greene and 11 assistant attorneys. Since being elected to the position, she said she's been able to add two attorneys — a drug court prosecutor and a domestic violence prosecutor — to her staff.

"Our primary responsibility is to see that justice is served," she said. "In order to do that, we have to look at the overall scheme of where our country is, and whether we agree or whether we disagree with what the laws are, we're not responsible for making those laws ... we simply enforce them, as our legislatures have enacted them."

The district attorney's office, Greene said, is undeniably short-staffed at the moment.

"There is a great need to have more prosecutors, but with that comes the additional support staff needed, the additional investigators," she said. "We are literally on top of each other, so we're looking for some additional space as things expand in the courthouse to, hopefully, be able to move and get more people in."

However, she said she does not think splitting the circuit in two is a viable solution. Simply put, Greene said Gordon County just doesn't have the funding available to operate a court system on its own. 

"Gordon County alone cannot support a superior court and a district attorney's office, so I think we're stuck with them, and I mean that in a very positive way,she said. "They don't have the resources that we have and they're not as willing to get that." 

In 2017, she said the Cherokee Judicial Circuit handled 3,008 cases in Bartow and 1,404 in Gordon. 

"I guarantee you I have at least 300 cases at all times between both counties," she said. "Probably, the assistants now have more than that, just because of the volume that goes through."

Per her office's data, drug offenses (27 percent), domestic violence (21 percent) and person crimes (21 percent) made up the bulk of last year's caseload. However, she said she believes that a near totality of the crimes she prosecutes involve substance use, to some capacity. 

"Somewhere between 85 percent to 90 percent of all crime, in some way or the other, is drug-related," Greene said. "I don't mean that it's a drug offense, but most of these sex offenses, property crimes, person crimes, have underlying substance abuse issues. We see it all the time … you see people breaking into homes in order to sell things, stripping air conditioners down for that — it is a huge problem that just covers everything we do."

The state's reaction to that, she said, has been the proliferation of incarceration-alternative programs. In 2012 Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 1176 into law, a major criminal justice reform bill that resulted in many non-violent offenders being sentenced to "accountability courts" instead of prison.

But that, she said, could change depending on the outcomes of this November's gubernatorial election.

"One of the things I'm very eager to see is if they continue funding for accountability courts or the drug court programs continue," she said. "Gov. Deal has made a big push and been a big proponent of accountability courts ... that's where the money is in state government right now to start programs and we as a community have benefited from that."

Indeed, Greene said she considers the Cherokee Judicial Circuit's drug court program to be one of the state's most effective. 

"We've got a very well-ran drug court program," she said. "But I don't know if that money's going to stay or if we're going to move into a different direction."

One aspect of Georgia's legal system she would like to see change, however, is the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, which she described as one of the state's least accountable agencies.

She said she's seen convicted felons with 20 year sentences exit the prison system in just half a year.

"Literally, they can process in and out in about six months. They go to Jackson, which is the diagnostic prison, they're classified and they roll right out," she said. "Some of that is the change we're seeing in low-level offenders not wanting to go into the system. It is a push more for rehabilitation, and I understand that and I agree with a lot of that but there are some of these people who don't need to see the light of day."

With Bartow's rapid growth in population, Greene said she is distressed — but not exactly surprised — to see an uptick in violent crimes in the local community. 

"When we have homicides here, we're seeing gang-related stuff, drug things, a lot of violence, it's really increasing in the past number of years," she said. 

"We're just growing. And we're more metro."