Some Georgia prosecutors pledge not to prosecute abortion-related crimes

Following Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision to dissolve federal abortion protections, local elected officials in liberal-leaning areas of the state are vowing not to enforce Georgia’s strict abortion law.

The ruling ultimately gave state lawmakers the final say on abortion rights, creating a patchwork of policies across the country.

But district attorneys in Gwinnett, DeKalb, Chatham, Athens-Clarke, Oconee, Douglas, Burke and Richmond counties say they won’t criminalize abortion care.

More than 80 district attorneys nationwide signed a letter pledging to push back against strict abortion laws or planned outright bans in at least half of the states.

“We are not all in personal or moral agreement on the issue of abortion,” the letter states, “But we are united in our firm belief that prosecutors have a responsibility to refrain from using the limited resources of the criminal justice system to criminalize personal medical care decisions.”

Six current district attorneys from north to south Georgia who wrote their names on the letter say they refuse to use their positions to prosecute women who seek abortions and providers of safe abortions.

Georgia doesn’t have a so-called ‘trigger law’ on the books, though the Supreme Court has struck down Roe vs. Wadeabortion is still legal in the state.

State lawmakers passed a tough abortion law in 2019 that bans abortions at around six weeks of pregnancy — before some women even know they’re pregnant.

The law has been temporarily stalled in court, but will likely go into effect. The 11th District Court of Appeals, reviewing the law, asked the parties to file briefs within 21 days on the impacts of the Supreme Court’s decision.

District attorneys who have sworn off prosecuting abortion-related crimes say they have been heavily criticized for refusing to enforce state law.

But for DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, that’s not what she got elected. Boston said it began preparing to act after the bill passed in 2019.

There are those in the legislature who think a district attorney should just enforce the laws they pass without worrying about how it might affect the community,” she told GPB. “I’m not one of those district attorneys. I believe the people of my community elected me to make decisions that are in the best interest of the community I serve.

“Victims must be on the front line”

Prosecutors who oppose Georgia’s abortion law argue that it puts additional strain on already stretched resources to tackle violent crime and that enforcing abortion bans will not end abortions , but will end safe abortions.

Western Judicial Circuit DA Deborah Gonzalez said her office was still reviewing a backlog of 500 cases after the pandemic shut down the court system for months — cases involving murder, child molestation and sexual assault.

“These are things that need our attention right now,” she said. “And that’s not something that we need to take resources out of and put them into prosecuting women or doctors for basically providing reproductive medical services and women making private decisions..”

Augusta District Attorney Jared Williams echoed his frustration.

“I fight gangs that kill children in the streets,” he said in a statement. “I fight violent parents who send their children to the hospital. I fight child molesters who prey on our children. Until our community is rid of violent crime and sexual predators, I will not spend not our limited resources to sue women and their doctors for personal health care decisions.

The implications for the justice system go beyond bogging down already overburdened prosecutors. District attorneys also said they were particularly concerned that victims of sexual assaults would be deterred from reporting.

The Georgian law of 2019, House Bill 481includes an exception to abortion for victims of rape or incest, but only up to 20 weeks of pregnancy.

“It worries me that these kinds of measures could, in fact, lead to under-reporting, which means there could be a lot more crime in our community and a lot more young female victims than we ever could. help,” Gonzalez said.

“The victim should be at the forefront of this conversation,” Boston said of DeKalb.

Although there is an exception for victims of sexual assault, she said victims should not be forced to immediately report to the police and go through the court system if they do not feel ready. .

It is widely recognized that victims of sexual assault rarely report right away and it can take years for them to come forward.

This should not be a prerequisite for victims (abortion care); that care should be the priority,” Boston said. “Our first and foremost concern with our victims in the criminal justice system is their mental and physical well-being.

But, experts speculate that the actual impact of district attorneys refusing to prosecute abortion-related crimes would be small.

Georgia State University law professor Anthony Michael Kreis said district attorneys traditionally have the discretion to prioritize which laws they will or will not enforce.

“But for every prosecutor who said they’re not going to enforce this or that they won’t be aggressive about it,” Kreis said, “there will be prosecutors out there who are going to be aggressive and are going to be impatient. to bring the VIE law and all the consequences that they can entail by right.

The state legislature could bypass local prosecutors and potentially create a state agency to prosecute abortion-related crimes. The state also still has the power to strip a doctor who breaks the law of their license, he said.

Still, Kreis explained, district attorneys could argue that the strict abortion law could breach the Georgia Constitution’s broad privacy protections.

“There is also a constitutional right of the state that is at stake and I think as these things unfold that will be part of this conversation as well,” he said.

The city council plays the defensive

District attorneys aren’t the only elected officials who want to protect abortion rights.

Atlanta City Council backs resolution that calls on Atlanta Police Department to make ‘lowest priority’ arrests for abortion crimes and prohibits any government funds from being used to track where occur abortions.

On Friday, Atlanta City Councilwoman Liliana Bakhtiari urged cities across the state to take similar action.

While we in the City of Atlanta cannot affect state law — because we know we are ahead of ourselves — we can set our own priorities and enforcement and do all we can to protect women. , trans and non-binary people seeking abortions,” she said.

Bakhtiari said it was “standard practice” for local officials to weigh in on police prioritization and that the resolution would only impact the city’s law enforcement agency. She also responded to criticism that the state’s top metropolitan leaders are elected in nonpartisan elections.

To those of you who think I may be overstepping my bounds as a city councilor in what is supposed to be a non-Democratic or non-Republican seat: Survival is not a partisan issue,” he said. she stated. “It’s me doing my job. It’s our job as public servants to do whatever we can to protect people’s lives. And that’s exactly what it’s all about.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens previously endorsed City Council’s plan and said Atlanta police “should not be involved in women’s health issues.”

Georgia has a recent history of state and local entities squabbling over health care policy.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Brian Kemp has clashed with Atlanta and other local governments, which have instituted stricter mask and safety requirements than the Republican governor — though those battles focused on the extensive powers available to the governor.

But Kreis told BPG that while municipalities can take steps to not dedicate resources to investigating allegations of abortion crimes by women or providers, ultimately there’s not much they can do. to circumvent state law.

For most Georgians, I certainly don’t think city governments will be able to do much to fight back,” he said.

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