This story had several previous episodes that brought it to a slow boil, so first, a recap and some background:
Governor Nathan Deal has released his final legislation to complete his legacy of transformative Criminal Justice Reform in the state of Georgia. He’s taken the process in small bites over the past seven years, but has moved the ball forward each time. Even without one more bill, his legacy on this subject is secure.
The number of African-American Georgians is at an all time low as a percentage of the prison population. Governor Deal is using a stat in his speeches noting that Georgia’s prison population is 6,000 inmates lower than was projected when he took office, saving $19,000 per inmate. That’s $114 Million per year NOT being spent to incarcerate Georgians. That’s $1 Billion saved every 9 years.
Not everyone is happy with the changes. Some of Georgia’s sheriffs are chief among them, but these days they are unhappy with a lot of what is going on in Atlanta. Here’s where you need to remember two things: Changing the threshold of theft from $500 to $1,500 doesn’t mean a crime wasn’t committed. It means it is now a misdemeanor for anything under $1,500. Thus, the folks that now steal between $500 and $1,500 go to jail, not state prison. Sheriffs run jails. Jails are mostly paid for by local taxes. Sheriff’s can’t raise taxes. County Commissioners have to do that.
The other thing? Last year when turnover in the ranks of the State Patrol and other state law enforcement ranks was at a crisis level, The Governor, Speaker, and Lieutenant Governor agreed outside of a legislative session to provide major (20%) pay raises. This made State positions more attractive, and local police and deputy positions less attractive. Sheriffs would need to raise local taxes to provide the same raises. Again, sheriffs can’t do that. Commissioners would have to do that. Many of whom have signed “no tax increases ever” pledges.
All of that background is to say this: I understand the plight and concern of Georgia’s sheriffs. I also relate to them. Randall Johnson, the Sheriff of Fayette County where I grew up was a life long friend of my dad, and he served from when I was a young child until I was deep into my 30’s. The current Sheriff, Barry Babb, lived down the road from me growing up and we rode the same bus to school. In smaller counties, the Sheriff knows everyone. They are like local Gods.
But while all powerful at the local level, sheriffs are having to deal with new realities. 49% of the state now lives in the 13 counties that make up the inner Atlanta region (the one used by GRTA, and proposed to be part of THE ATL transit area). The smallest of these counties is Rockdale, and at 91,000 citizens is the only county that has less than 100,000 residents.
In most of Metro Atlanta, folks don’t know their sheriff like other areas of Georgia. For comparison, Georgia has 159 counties and thus 159 sheriffs. 33 of those sheriffs have less than 10,000 constituents. 87 – more than half – serve less than 25,000. So, before we bring this back to one sheriff, let’s bring this point home. The Georgia Sheriff’s Association is quite powerful. But 146 of their voting members represent half the state. 13 members represent the other half. The organization is going to speak for and react like rural Georgia. When dealing with raw political calculus, their needs – and messaging – are often going to fail to hit the median voter of the state.
Now, you have a bunch of Sheriff’s that are generally all powerful, except they lack the power of the purse. The state has gifted them more misdemeanors and staffing challenges. Their commissioners aren’t excited about raising local taxes. And they are irritated, thought most are keeping that quiet, at least publicly.
The exception to this rule is Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills. His reaction to Governor Deal’s 2018 package of Criminal Justice Reforms was to speak of the devil. In that, quite directly, he compared Governor Deal to Lucifer. By Name.
“This governor has done more for those who perpetrate crime than Lucifer and his demons combined, and every piece of his criminal justice reform that has been passed into law has complicated or burdened our duties and/or endangered the citizenry of our state,”
Given that I spent so much time explaining the plight of the sheriffs, let me now explain why Sheriff Sills’ comments had a compound effect – as if calling a sitting Governor the literal devil isn’t bad enough. Much like the great powers given to sheriffs, the Governor also has great constitutional authority. He cannot, however, unilaterally write or change laws. For that, he needs a majority of the legislators. That would be at least 91 Lucifers in the House, and 29 Lucifers in the Senate for each piece of reform legislation signed into law. In summary, his short sighted name calling brought hell to at least 120 legislators who sided with the Governor.
And, as such, last week in the House, the Speaker himself along with 6 other members took to the well to explain to Sheriff Sills just how out of line he was. You can watch for yourself here, starting at the 49:30 mark. Seriously, you should appreciate how rare this is.
You didn’t watch? Majority Whip Christian Coomer, Mary Margaret Oliver, Scot Turner, Rules Chairman John Meadows, Chuck Efstration, Al Williams, and the Speaker himself. Speaker Ralston said the comments were “disgusting and deplorable.” There were calls from Representatives Turner and Meadows for the Sheriff’s Association to censure Sheriff Sills. Consider the legislature to have pushed back.
“…I regret using that terminology…I certainly never thought that it would create the controversy that it has…I am making no apologies for exercising my rights as an American under our Constitution. I will continue to criticize the Governor or anybody else. I have a right to do that. I find it most incredulous that they’re acting the way they are.”
“If my Association intends to censor (sic) me…this is still America. It’s not North Korea. I can’t be imprisoned for it. My Association certainly can’t penalize me in any way. But if they choose to censor me, or something like that, then I stand ready to accept that censorship (sic) or whatever else they feel is appropriate in conjunction with the by-laws of the organization….This was an email to other sheriffs, and as I said before, maybe I shouldn’t have used Lucifer, but people use far worse terms than that to criticize me, and I don’t cry about it.”
Now, I’m not a lawyer, and unlike most people with a keyboard I don’t claim to be a “constitutional scholar”. But I do know something about rights. Anyone that’s watched a TV crime drama since the 1970’s should. The right in question was codified by the US Supreme Court due to Mr. Gideon Wainright in the case of Miranda vs Arizona.
This right goes something like this: Sheriff Sills has the right to remain silent. Anything he says can and will be used against him.
Let me rephrase his Miranda rights into political terms. He as a Sheriff and as an American has the right to free speech. He doesn’t not have protections from the consequences of his speech. The more ill advised the speech, the more the consequences. That’s not just politics. That’s life.
The problem is that now Sheriff Sills has put his own fellow Sheriffs in a tough spot. He continued to emphasize that this was in an email to fellow sheriffs. They are now in a position where they’re forced to respond, due to his ill advised use of his right to not remain silent. Or at least, when making noise, to not call the Governor and the majority of Georgia’s legislators the devil.
The good Sheriff says he doesn’t cry about it, but there’s a defiance in his own pushback that belies the reality that he and many other sheriffs now face. Their power is being truncated by local Commissioners on one end and by the loss of statewide political clout on another. They’re at a point where they need their friends in the legislature. And instead of contrition, Sheriff Sills is doubling down on his own arrogance.
It’s this blinding arrogance that won’t let this end well for Georgia’s sheriffs or at least for Sheriff Sills. Because even though he knows he has the right to remain silent, it doesn’t appear that he has the ability.
Publisher of GeorgiaPol.com
UGA & GSU degrees in Economics
Executive Director for PolicyBEST
Interests are public policy solutions in Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation that keep GA competitive and a great place to live.