One new issue, and one long-debated issue, loomed over a virtual forum featuring the Democratic Party’s candidates for Gwinnett County sheriff last week.
The forum, which was hosted by Asian American Advocacy Fund and other minority rights groups, was broadly designed to touch on issues affecting minorities in Gwinnett, but given the current pandemic, the COVID-19 coronavirus disease outbreak was one topic highlighted during the forum. Candidates talked about the impact of the outbreak on the jail.
But the participation of the sheriff’s office in the federal 287(g) program, which has long been the source of controversy in Gwinnett, was also a key topic. Outgoing Sheriff Butch Conway, a Republican, has long been a supporter of the program, where the sheriff’s office places holds for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on undocumented residents who are booked into the jail.
“The first thing I will do is immediately end the expensive and divisive and discriminatory 287(g) deportation program,” candidate Curtis Clemons said. “It separates families and drives a wedge between law enforcement and the community and it also feeds the for-profit prisons in Georgia.”
The fact that 287(g) was frequently mentioned during the forum is not surprising. There has been frequent debate over the last few years about whether the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office should participate in the program.
That was highlighted by the controversy over Conway’s decision to invite Dustin Inman Society founder D.A. King to participate in a 287(g) forum last summer, a move that sparked backlash from Democrats and immigrant groups and resulted in an ethics complaint against Commissioner Marlene Fosque. During an ethics hearing, Conway said looked to King for advice on issues involving immigrants.
Democrats running for the sheriff’s office have each come out against the office’s participation in the 287(g), at least in its current form.
In addition to Clemons, the Democratic Party’s candidates for sheriff include Ben Haynes, Keybo Taylor and Floyd Scott. All four candidates participated in the virtual forum.
“I started policing back in the early 80s and during that time, I got to witness what agencies were doing, they dealing with people that were being racially profiled and detained, or arrested unlawfully,” said Taylor, who wants the 287(g) deputies reassigned to fighting sex trafficking and other issues. “What I see with this 287(g) program is the exact same thing, and it’s happening in 2019, 2020.
“I don’t see how we can go back in and continue to have that type of program in place.”
Scott said, “One of the things it hampers, and it happens every single day, is the undocumented immigrants — crimes are being committed against them because the criminals know they’re not going to report it because they could possibly be deported.”
Gwinnett Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shannon Volkodav has said in the past that any fear among undocumented residents that they will be arrested and deported if they report crimes committed against them is the result of a misunderstanding.
Volkodav has also said deputies involved in the program do not actively go into the community looking for undocumented residents. People turned over the ICE are people who were arrested on other charges, whether it be a traffic-related charge or a murder charge, she has said in the past.
“There are many cases in Gwinnett involving people who are in the country illegally yet sought law enforcement services when they were victims or witnesses to a crime,” Volkodav said on Tuesday. “Recently a man who claims he’s living in the country illegally called 911 to report that he was threatened by a law enforcement officer following a vehicle accident in a parking lot.
“Our deputies located and arrested the suspect, who turned out to be a former police officer. His case is one of many that clearly demonstrates there is no cause for concern about calling for law enforcement services, even if you are in the country illegally.”
Haynes said he wants to do a “complete reformation” of the 287(g) program rather get rid of it. He said it is currently used to deport people arrested on low level offenses that he said whites and African-Americans would not be arrested for, such as traffic offenses.
Haynes said it should only be used in “extreme cases” for people arrested on major felony offenses.
“The current administration, the current sheriff, unfortunately, is more concerned with appeasing President Trump and D.A. King rather than with keeping our community safe,” he said. “As the sheriff, it is not my job to appease the federal immigration enforcement. It’s wasteful, it costs the taxpayers of Gwinnett too much money and it leads to too much public distrust.”
Given the current COVID-19 outbreak, there were calls from candidates to decrease some of the jail population in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease.
“Low level offenders should be released immediately to begin decreasing the population,” Haynes said. “I have called for, did call for, visitations to end at the jail and for the video calls to be opened up and made free for the inmates ... Medically fragile (inmates) should be released so that so that they are not subject to it at the jail (and) we need to limit the physical contacts, the number of physical contacts the inmates have between the jail and the outside world.”
Clemons said he and Nabilah Islam, a Democrat running for the 7th Congressional District seat, jointly called for all low level misdemeanor criminal offenders whose bond was set at $500 or less be released from jail last month.
“But one other thing we also asked for was that the elderly on those minor misdemeanor charges be released immediately because they are the most likely to contract and, unfortunately, die from this horrible disease,” Clemons said.
Taylor recalled dealing with the HIV epidemic in the jail in the early 1980s, and based his suggestions for dealing with COVID-19 from that.
“I’m not in favor of any type of mass release,” he said. “We have to make sure we balance ourselves out between the safety of our citizens, and the safety of our deputies and the safety of the inmates that are being held in there. I believe what we need to do is take our directions from health care professionals, such as the CDC, develop what are the best practices that we need to implementing ... and we have to develop some risk management models.”
Scott also recommended following CDC guidelines.
“As long as we practice the good, safe practices that the CDC has authorized and indicated for us to operate through, I think that we will have little, to no incidents that will occur at the sheriff’s office,” he said.