March 3, 2023 | News

Prosecutors, cold cases, football: check out Athens lawmaker bills ahead of crossover day

Writer: Abraham Kenmore

Published March 3, 2023; Updated March 8, 2023

Note: A previous version of this story had the incorrect timeline for implementation of HB 185. It has been updated, and the funding formula has been clarified.

As the Georgia General Assembly heads towards the beginning of the end of the session, Athens area lawmakers have introduced bills that could impact the local area.

Some are resolutions related to University of Georgia football and back-to-back championships, but there are also bills related to oversight of prosecutors that could have implications for Athens. All bills that have not already passed either the House or the Senate will have to pass by the end of day Monday, Crossover Day, to move forward this session.

Oversight of prosecutors

Several proposals in the General Assembly would increase oversight of local prosecutors.

In the state House, HB 229, authored by Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, would clarify the rules around recalling local prosecutors and add a new cause for a recall — failing to review every individual case for "probable cause for prosecution."

In the state Senate, legislation proposed the formation of a commission overseeing prosecutors with the ability to discipline local prosecutors and adds a similar cause to discipline "willful and persistent failure to carry out duties." That bill, SB 92, passed the Senate on Thursday. That proposal is backed by Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens. A similar bill in the House, HB 231, has the backing of Gaines as well.

The language of this law seems to be aimed at part at prosecutors such as the District Attorney for Athens, Deborah Gonzalez, who have committed to not prosecuting certain kinds of offenses.

Supporters of SB 92 have cited Gonzalez and her policy of not prosecuting low-level drug offenses among other local prosecutors in making the case for increased prosecutorial oversight. Previously, Gonzalez issued a memo committing to not prosecuting certain drug offenses, including simple marijuana possession and user quantities of drugs. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr suggested that this might constitute a violation of her oath of office back in January 2021.

Cold case investigation, with help from UGA

Another bill introduced by Gaines, HB 88, or the "Coleman-Baker Act" has already passed the House and is headed to the Senate.

The bill would create a new cold case commission within the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, track unsolved homicides and provide for timely death certificates even in unsolved cases.

The law is named in part after Georgia Law School student Tara Baker, who was killed in 2001 in Athens in a murder that remains unsolved. It would also establish a case tracking system under the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia and a website to allow the public to follow the work of the commission and cold case statistics.

New scholarship opportunities

Another bill that has already passed the House ahead of crossover day, HB 185, would create new grants under the Georgia Student Finance authority for students with intellectual disabilities.

The inclusive postsecondary education or IPSE grants would be available to students at University System of Georgia or Technical College System of Georgia schools that offer IPSE programs.

Through 2028, eligible students could receive grants covering the equivalent of standard tuition at a given college, although IPSE programs often have additional fees. The IPSE programs would support students with intellectual disabilities, including services, academic enrichment, extracurriculars, and offering "a meaningful credential" upon completing the IPSE program.

Celebrating the Dawgs

With their second championship, the UGA Bulldogs have received statewide acclaim — and Athens area representatives have made sure the General Assembly is part of that.

State Reps. Marcus Wiedower, R-Watkinsville, and Spencer Frye, D-Athens, joined Gaines in a House resolution, HR 51, commending the team on winning the 2023 College Football National Championship.

The three lawmakers also joined together on a resolution, HR 286, honoring the late head coach Vince Dooley, who died in October. Wiedower and Gaines also introduced a specific resolution, HR 13, honoring UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett. All three resolutions were read and adopted.