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Fulton DA faces two former deputies in election

Maggie Lee
L-R: Incumbent DA Paul Howard and challengers Christian Wise Smith and Fani Willis. Credit: Facebook/campaigns

By Maggie Lee

This year’s Democratic primary voters will decide whether Fulton County gets a new district attorney or keeps its longtime prosecutor — who has a big role in shaping and changing criminal justice policy.

All three candidates agree on some things, like that too many people are in Fulton County’s jails. And that there are circumstances where a pre-indictment diversion program is a better path than criminal charges for folks who, say, are fighting substance abuse disorder or other circumstances.

Paul Howard is looking to keep the office he first won in 1997. He paints a picture of a criminal justice system that’s moving in the right way.

“I want to continue to prosecute the most violent and the most harmful defendants, but at the same time, I would like to provide crime prevention programs for our children, and second chances for defendants that most deserve it,” Howard said, opening an online candidate forum Wednesday afternoon.

He said he’ll focus on violent gang activity, drive-by shootings, slider crimes and driving down the juvenile repeat offender rate.

However he’s also facing a GBI investigation into whether he used a nonprofit to funnel $140,000 of Atlanta funds into his own pocket. Howard has said he expects to be exonerated.

Challenger Christian Wise Smith said one thing that makes him different from the other candidates is personal — having close family and friends involved in the criminal justice system, and having been through a point in his own life where he saw a future as a drug dealer.

Smith said he’s determined to end cash bail. That’s a policy already gaining ground in some blue states, as well as blue cities like Atlanta. The idea is that it’s unfair for people with money to go home and await trial while poor people have to sit in jail for the same things.

He said the other two folks in the race represent a “negative” history.

“We will end mass incarceration and partner with community service providers to focus on treatment and services, instead of sentences,” Smith said.

Smith spent almost six years as an assistant Atlanta solicitor, then worked as an assistant district attorney. Challenger Fani Willis spent many more years as a deputy to Howard as well; she since became chief magistrate judge in the city of South Fulton.

She said Smith has too little experience, and that her former boss’ office isn’t offering fair treatment to the accused or to victims.

If the DA were putting in “qualified attorneys and qualified investigators to do case intake … the first thing you would find is, many of the cases that he charges, should not be charged,” Willis said of Howard. “The second thing that you would find is, those people that we could put into programs, the pre-indictment diversion program I plan to start, and into some of the mental health and drug courts that I plan to utilize, would also not find themselves in jail.”

The folks who make DA race donations (it’s a list heavy on fellow lawyers) are lining up behind Willis. She raised about $146,000 in the three months that ended on April 30.

Howard collected about $55,000 in the same time. Smith collected about $33,000.

The Wednesday forum was hosted by The Appeal, a criminal justice news site and Now This, a progressive news site. The whole video is available on The Appeal’s Facebook page.

Early voting is underway and Election Day is June 9.

Documents:

Candidate financial disclosures:

Paul Howard disclosure

Christian Wise Smith disclosure

Fani Willis disclosure

Campaign web sites:

Paul Howard

Christian Wise Smith

Fani Willis

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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