MORROW — Five candidates for Clayton County sheriff took the floor for about an hour Thursday night during a forum at Clayton State University, answering questions concerning training, recidivism and reducing crime.
Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson and her challenger Leslie Miller Terry also faced off at the forum, which was sponsored by the Coalition of Clayton County Clergy. The two women tackled questions regarding the death penalty, fairness in sentences and ways to curtail crimes against women and children.
When Terry, whose prosecutorial experience includes stints inside the Fulton and DeKalb district attorneys' offices, said she would put together a specialized unit to fight crimes against women and children, Lawson said one already operates in her office.
"We have that here," said Lawson. "We have a senior assistant district attorney who tries these cases every day. All my assistant district attorneys have specialized training in gang prosecutions. Violent crime in Clayton County has gone down."
Lawson said the biggest issues facing her staff include a poor economy.
"There is not enough government money to go around," she said. "There have been no raises in about six years. It's hard to have good, quality prosecutors when we can't pay what the private sector pays, but we get it done."
Lawson has spent nearly 30 years serving Clayton County as either a prosecutor or Juvenile Court judge. Terry, a native of Philadelphia, worked in Atlanta before being elected solicitor general for Clayton State Court in 2004. That office prosecutes misdemeanor cases. She lost a bid for re-election in 2008.
Terry said the biggest issues in the office are an overload of cases and swiftness of justice. However, Lawson said cases are down 33 percent from the previous administration.
"We try to get cases through the system in about five and a half months," said Lawson. "We saved the county $2 million last year in taxes by getting inmates from the jail and into courts to dispose of their cases. We also collected $25 million in child support for the children of Clayton County."
When Terry began telling the crowd that she was running for office because parents and defendants have come to her with complaints about not getting justice within the Clayton District Attorney's Office, moderators cautioned her to not make personal attacks.
This immediately drew the ire of a group of Terry supporters sitting in the audience. They pointed fingers at Lawson and accused the moderators of not policing Lawson for "doing the same thing," they shouted. The moderators disagreed and reminded Terry to not be confrontational.
Terry also alluded to an alleged child molestation case where charges were dropped, insinuating that Lawson allowed a man who hurt children to walk free. But two of Lawson's assistant prosecutors said after the forum that was not the case. Katie Powers said the accused passed a polygraph and a test given to suspected sex offenders. Lalaine Briones said the alleged victim's mother falsely accused the man of going to the child's school.
"He was wearing an ankle monitor that showed exactly where he was," said Briones. "She was lying. He was nowhere near the school."
Powers and Briones said there was no evidence the man molested the child and the case was dropped.
None of that was allowed to be explained during the forum, which operated under strict rules of answering the question at hand. No rebuttals were allowed.
One of the questions, involving tougher drunk driving laws, didn't quite hit the mark. The District Attorney's Office prosecutes only DUI cases that are charged with felonies. A simple DUI is a misdemeanor in Georgia and is prosecuted in State Court. Felonies are prosecuted in Superior Court.
Lawson said she stated the county's first DUI/Drug Court in Juvenile Court about 13 years ago and it's still in operation.
Terry said her campaign started with a vision.
“The vision doesn’t end here,” she said.
Sheriffs candidates Jon Antoine, Tina Daniel, Lawrence Ethridge, Victor Hill and Rica Wright seemed to agree on the answer to the first question -- whether officers fired by one county agency should be hired by a second one in the same county. Ethridge said such a practice violates an "unwritten rule" in law enforcement. Wright and Antoine emphasized the importance of screening every employee. Hill agreed with the three but added that they would look at each hire individually.
Daniel said each case should be handled independently of each other but added that the issue has to do with liability.
"If you have someone with an extensive record of excessive force, who's been with five agencies in four years, I'd think that should be frowned upon," said Daniel. "It's about saving the county money and not opening up the county to unnecessary lawsuits. That's unacceptable."
They all agreed that having a staff of well-trained deputies is vital to the operation of the sheriff's office.
"You have to look at what society places a value on," said Antoine. "It's cheaper to train 10 officers than to legally defend one. I'm a proponent of training. It's paramount."
Antoine said one of the biggest issues facing the sheriff's office is a lack of leadership.
"It's a leader-less vessel," he said. "There are only five of us here. You have a sheriff. You have to have a strong leadership."
Sheriff Kem Kimbrough elected to not participate in the forum.
Hill, who was sheriff during 2005-2008, said the jail is unsafe for workers and inmates. He lost a bid for re-election in 2008 to Kimbrough. Hill is under a 38-count indictment for crimes that he allegedly committed while he was sheriff. His case is not expected to go to trial before the July 31 primary.
The law allows a candidate under indictment to run for office. However, if Hill is elected and then convicted during his term, he will be thrown out of office. A special election will be held to replace him.
Ethridge said the office needs to build trust with citizens and to restore the trust of employees. Wright sees low morale is a major issue. Daniel agreed but expanded by adding "a lack of integrity."
"Employees are not being treated the way they should be," she said. "We need to move forward. Not backward."