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David Pendered

Sheriff who broke Brer Rabbit case now a lone voice against criminal sentencing reform

By David Pendered

The Georgia sheriff who cracked the case of the stolen statue of Brer Rabbit has come out with a last ditch effort against a proposal pending in the Legislature that is strongly supported by Gov. Nathan Deal and ranking lawmakers.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills says the alternative sentencing bill that’s due for a vote Monday in the state Senate is soft on crime and will shift the cost of managing convicted lawbreakers from the state to counties. The House unanimously approved the bill last week.

To fight the bill, Sills has distributed an email filled with the sort of rousing language he deployed in August. At that time, the sheriff vowed to throw the law book at thieves who stole a statue of Brer Rabbit from the front yard of the Uncle Remus Museum, in Eatonton.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills with Brer Rabbit, whom he retrieved from kidnappers. Credit: Putnam County Sheriffs Department.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills with Brer Rabbit, whom he retrieved from kidnappers. Credit: Putnam County Sheriffs Department.

“The Devil’s dancing in Hell; and every thief, burglar, check forger, and hoodlum from Trenton to Tybee, from Bainbridge to Blue Ridge, will be grinning from ear to ear if this passes the Senate,” Sills wrote.

“When it comes to being soft on crime, this legislation will nestle our miscreants in a down filled feather bed of comfort they never remotely thought they could slumber in,” Sills wrote.

The proposal that so angers the sheriff, House Bill 1176, grew out of work by a special committee created last year by the Legislature. The committee’s purpose was to devise ways to reduce the costs of the state Corrections Department, where costs have soared in the nearly two decades since the state approved efforts to put more criminals behind bars for longer stretches.

The department now spends more than $1 billion a year, and costs are expected to keep rising through 2016.

To contain prison costs, lawmakers are considering a plan that would reserve prison for inmates deemed dangerous to the public. Offenders who steal property to support their drug use, and those convicted of similar crimes, would be diverted from state prison through alternative sentences, which are to include rehabilitation programs. The current proposal is estimated to save the state more than $264 million over five years.

Sills has protested the proposal since it was unveiled last year by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform. The sheriff evidently is among the minority.

Deal and other top officials have heaped praise on the recommendations. The bi-partisan committee included Republicans and Democrats, many of whom have lengthy tenure in the Legislature’s oversight of the judiciary.

Here are snippets from the governor’s statement, released on Nov. 18, 2011, after the committee had submitted its findings and recommendations:

Deal: “While we’ll never shrink from our duty to protect the public from dangerous criminals, we know that alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders suffering from addiction or mental illness produces much better results. Let’s get to work on promoting recovery and rehabilitation, rather than a system that simply hardens criminals.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle: “Keeping Georgia’s citizens safe, and doing so in a fiscally prudent manner, is a primary function of state government, and I look forward to debate on this important issue during the session.”

House Speaker David Rawlston: “This report by the Criminal Justice Reform Council represents months of work by all three branches of state government to balance the concerns of a billion dollar Department of Corrections budget, while ensuring public safety.”

Click here to read the full statement, with a link to the committee’s report.

Sheriff Sills doesn’t seem fazed by the star power of the bill’s backers. Then again, Sills has already had his time in the sun, and not just from his apprehension of four young men who stole Brer Rabbit on lark.

Sills took on the Nuwaubian Nation in a battle that garnered international attention in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Southern Poverty Law Center defines Nuwaubianism as a mixture of black supremacy with worship of Egyptians and pyramids. The Putnam County skirmish included everything from a gutted dog left outside the home of a lawyer for the county, to death threats against Sills.

The stand-off ended with the Nuwaubian leader being sentenced in to a lengthy prison sentence on charges including child molestation, child exploitation, and witness tampering.

Click here to read the SPLC’s review of the case.

Back to the Brer Rabbit case, three of the young men who stole the statue have pled guilty to lesser charges. The fourth is still awaiting trial, according to a story published in “The Eatonton Messenger.”

Click here to read the story.

This is how Sills ended his email that asked for help in halting the alternative sentencing bill:

“A sheriff has the duty to preserve the peace, and protect the lives, person, property, health and morals of the people; and I believe the consequences of this legislation becoming law will seriously impair my ability to do my duty,” Sills wrote.

“Those of us who have a comprehensive and practical knowledge of the realities surrounding crime and punishment in Georgia know that this bill WILL NOT improve public safety.”


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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