District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez discusses upbringing, reforming prosecution

Gonzalez discussed her adaptability to career changes and ways the district attorney’s office can support the community while furthering justice.

Deborah Gonzalez is on the move. From private lawyer to Georgia state representative to district attorney of the Western Judicial Circuit, Gonzalez is constantly adapting to changes in her surroundings without missing a beat. 

She comes from a military family and considers her ability to seamlessly transcend through different stages of her career a byproduct of her migratory upbringing. 

“In the military, you get your orders and you go where they tell you to go, not where you want to go. Then you learn to adapt to where you are and the reality of that,” Gonzalez said.

She explained that moving across the country allowed her to learn from a young age how to adjust to changes in environment and quickly build relationships with peers. After many years of learning the contours of new people and new places, Gonzalez said she also gained a restless spirit that hungers for travel. 

A hunger, she said, that has not been fed since the beginning of the pandemic.

“One thing that I missed most because of [COVID-19] is being able to travel,” Gonzalez said. “I want to do the Camino de Santiago, which is a pilgrimage walking through Spain.” She added that there are many more places she wants to go.

Gonzalez often travels with her husband, UGA professor Dr. Richard Scott, who she met on a trip to Turkey while she was working at UGA in the office of international public service and outreach at the JW Fanning Institute for Leadership Development. 

“There was a group of us from UGA who went on this trip, sort of an immersion trip of professors to learn about the Turkish culture, and he was one of the UGA professors who went,” Gonzalez said. Although both she and her husband resided in Athens, they did not meet until they were both thousands of miles away in Istanbul.

Scott responded to requests for comment that he and Gonzalez made an agreement not to interfere in each other’s professional lives and declined to be interviewed.

Gonzalez’ work tends to speak for itself, said Shane Sims, an advisor to Gonzalez on mass incarceration and director of Modern Pathways to Recovery, a non-profit organization that provides support to people recovering from substance use and mental health challenges. 

As an active member of the post-incarceration community, Sims said he felt a change in the community’s perception of prosecutors when Gonzalez was elected to the Western Judicial Circuit district attorney’s office on Nov. 30, 2020. 

Gonzalez, unlike other prosecutors in the state, does not give the community the impression that her role as district attorney is strictly punitive, Sims said.

“It’s not that she does not hold individuals accountable. She holds them accountable according to their culpability, while taking into consideration that there are certain factors in an individual’s life that are beyond [their] control,” Sims said. 

Throughout her campaign for district attorney, Gonzalez made it clear that she favored methods of restorative justice through rehabilitation programs like Sims’.

“We’re trying to do what is best for the community, and that might mean getting somebody the help they need because they have a mental health issue or they have a drug addiction. [A mental health issue or a drug addiction] doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to be in jail,” Gonzalez said.

In her role, Gonzalez is entrusted with deciding the fates of her fellow community members, a responsibility she said she does not take lightly.

“In my position right now, the philosophy is that every decision I make, how does that further justice? This is the question that I asked all the lawyers who work for me when we make a decision on sentencing or charging. How does it further justice?” Gonzalez said. 

She added, “And if it doesn’t, then maybe we [prosecutors] need to rethink.”

How I wrote this: I reached out to DA Gonzalez through her government email and conducted an interview with her via Zoom. Gonzalez put me in contact with Sims, who I interviewed over the phone.

Published by Emily G. Garcia

Enterprise Reporter at The Red & Black

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