Systemic Bias, Protecting Victims Among Key Issues In DeKalb County State's Attorney Race
Reforms to systemic bias in policing and the courts is a prominent campaign issue in the race for DeKalb County State’s Attorney.
Republican incumbent Rick Amato faces a challenge from Democratic candidate Anna Wilhelmi in this contest. The two spoke at a recent forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Amato’s opening statement touched on the importance of how cases are prioritized.
“We’re going to continue working on programs and policies that get low-level offenders out of our programs, out of our court system, and we’re going to continue making our community safe," he said.
Challenger Wihelmi said one of her priorities is addressing unequal treatment of those in the criminal justice system.
“Studies show that there is bias from policing in the streets up all the way up through sentencing and mass incarceration of black and brown people,” she said.
One reform she wants is the appointment of a special prosecutor for cases involving police accused of misconduct. She said this would help avoid a conflict of interest. Amato said this sort of progress is a continuing effort.
“Can law enforcement be better? Can criminal justice be better? Every day can be better and we work towards that every day, improving our policies and improving our offerings,” said Amato.
One issue proving more divisive among the two is the future of the cash bail system. Wilhelmi wants to avoid incarcerating people before trial if they aren’t able to pay but aren’t a safety or flight risk. She said eliminating cash bail would avoid further harm to someone already struggling to get by.
“If you are poor, you are punished by staying in jail," she said. "You lose your job, potentially. Your family is separated. You potentially lose your housing.”
Amato acknowledged some individuals were released on their own recognizance or had low bonds posted, but said it was also important to address victim safety.
“So I think the bond reform statute as it’s moving through, I think needs to keep an eye on keeping our community safe and keeping the victim away from predators or their abuser if they’re released from prison or released from county jail,” he said.
When asked about how to maximize cooperation between the state’s attorney and law enforcement, Amato said it comes down to mutual trust.
“And it’s a must for doing any types of productive reforms as well as new policies that make a difference to everybody’s lives.”
Wilhelmi cautioned that the state’s attorney must not simply be an arm of law enforcement.
“The law enforcement have to understand that the state’s attorney’s office works for the people so that we are a separate office, and then we work side by side to make our community safe," she said.
Wilhelmi said this distinction is essential to building community trust, which she notes is particularly lacking among minorities.
Both candidates shared some common ground regarding the Child Advocacy Center. Wilhelmi wants to ensure a “vertical” prosecution and court structure for children and their families.
“So they are not exposed to too many people in the court system," she said. "So they have one person or a team that they are working with throughout the court system as well as in the judiciary.”
Amato added that COVID-19 makes reporting cases of childhood abuse more complicated.
“They’re not coming out to us because we’re stuck with e-learning," he said. "We’re struck with being sheltered in place. So the biggest issue is going to be finding these children, making sure they know they have places to come to, whether it’s CAC, whether it’s Safe Passage, whether it’s law enforcement, whether it’s our office.”
Both Amato and Wilhelmi want alternatives to incarceration to remain in place, such as drug court, and conditional discharge.
In the end, each of the two candidates expressed a need to ensure community safety. But Wilhelmi said that goal requires addressing systemic and racial bias from over-policing to sentencing.
The candidates face off November 3rd in the general election.