As published in the Albany Herald
May 4, 2019
By Carlton Fletcher
ALBANY — As Georgia’s top law enforcer, Attorney General Chris Carr is not afforded the luxury of leaving his Atlanta offices very often. When he does get out, though, Carr said he likes to make it count.
“We don’t get to do this often enough, but I think it’s important for me as an official elected to serve the entire state of Georgia to get out and look people in the eye, shake their hands and answer their questions,” Carr said during a conversation with The Albany Herald Thursday before an appearance at a joint meeting of three Albany civic clubs. “I serve at the pleasure of the people of Georgia, and I take it seriously that my office is the people’s office.”
Carr, who was appointed to fill the AG position in 2016 by then-Gov. Nathan Deal and was elected for a full four-year term in 2018, said he has found a “whole new satisfaction level” in the office.
“There’s something about this job that’s very satisfying,” he said. “Every time we make headway on the addiction issue or get a predator off the streets, there’s a greater level of satisfaction.”
Carr and Nicholas Smith, the director of external affairs and policy in the Attorney General’s office, sat down with The Herald and discussed key issues impacting the state and region over a cup of coffee at Elements Coffee.
ALBANY HERALD: One of the most pressing issues in Georgia and in the nation is the opioid crisis. How is your office responding to this issue?
CHRIS CARR: In the last eight years, more than 8,000 Georgians have died from opioid use. That’s more than 8,000 families and groups of friends who lost someone they love, and I can tell you that it knows no geographic or demographic boundaries. People say our drug problem is an “inner-city” problem, but it’s not. Drugs don’t stop at the city limits or the county or state line, and they don’t impact any one group. Look at Sen. Johnny Isakson, one of the most prominent gentlemen in our state, and his grandson — who had a 3.9 GPA in mathematics — died of an overdose the night before he was supposed to graduate.
AH: I know you were instrumental in forming a statewide task force to battle this epidemic. Can you point to this group or to any other action taken by your office that shows success?
CC: What that task force has managed to do is get everyone in the same room and has opened the dialog. There’s less reluctance to talk about this problem. And there’s been a willingness to share resources. I don’t know how you can define success in a situation like this, but we are hearing some success stories. I don’t think this is something that can be measured with numbers, but ultimate success for me would be no more drug-related funerals. I am proud that now all of the agencies involved in battling this crisis — public health, law enforcement, community health and, especially, the governor’s office — are working together to knock down the walls so that people can realize how this crisis impacts us all.
AH: What role will your office and the task force play in the ongoing fight against drug abuse?
CC: We have to make the public aware of the dangers of these drugs and the ever-changing nature of the drug culture. It’s a complicated tapestry that does not apply only to one group. When you consider that in 2015-16, half of the overdoses in the state were people in the 45 to 64-year-old age range, you get a clearer picture. Someone goes in for a knee replacement, he’s prescribed medication to help with the pain, and he’s soon addicted. That’s why we’re focusing on testimonials, real people telling their very real stories. We want the public to see that it’s OK to talk about this issue. As a former economic developer, it’s frightening when you look at statistics that show 20 percent of the men not in the work force are not there because of opioid addiction. And the number is higher for women, 25 percent.
AH: Let’s switch to an issue that’s of great concern in urban areas like Albany. Gangs.
CC: First, though, let me offer you statistics that show gang affiliation is not just an urban problem I think like 155 of 159 of Georgia’s counties have reported some kind of gang activity. (Smith later amends that number to 157 of 159.) Nationally, there are 71,000 identifiable gang members, and there are 1,500 sects that have been ID’d in Georgia. We’ve got to prosecute the dangerous and violent gang members, it’s true, but prevention is more important. Our challenge is to stop kids from getting into gangs to begin with. With support from the governor, we have a statewide Gang Task Force that has gotten the buy-in from three U.S. Attorneys, the FBI, GBI, Corrections, Juvenile Justice, sheriffs, police chiefs, district attorneys. And the man appointed by the governor to head that task force, Vic Reynolds, is one of the best in the business.
AA: Talk, if you would, about the work of the Gang Task Force.
CC: First of all, the governor has made it clear that this is a priority issue. And having all of the pertinent agencies working together is key. There is a spirit of “What resources do I have that we can all use?” as opposed to everyone trying to do the same things. I think it’s important to point out that gangs are not confined to any one race. The most violent gang in Georgia is the Ghost-faced Gangsters, which is a white gang. There are two ways you can deal with the gang problem we face: You can acknowledge that there is a problem and deal with it, or you can pretend it’s not a problem and things will get worse.
AA: The issue of human trafficking really took off during the Super Bowl in Atlanta this year. Is it a major concern in the state?
CC: The nonprofit agency Georgia Cares said that in 2018, around 800 kids from 135 to 140 counties in Georgia were human trafficking victims. It’s an issue that’s much more widespread than people think. And as many as three-fourths of the transactions are carried out over the Internet. People talk about First Amendment rights — and I’m a big first Amendment guy — but I don’t think selling children for sex falls under the First Amendment of the Constitution in any way or form.
AH: I was kind of saving this question, but I’m going to go ahead and ask. I wrote a column saying some bad things about you when you got Georgia involved in the court case to have the Affordable Care Act declared unconstitutional. It doesn’t so much impact me personally, but I am angry for the millions of Americans it will impact. It’s one thing to do something for a legitimate reason, but this appeared more of a partisan politics issue. Was it?
CC: Actually, I’m glad you asked that question. We are a nation of laws based on our Constitution. When the Affordable Care Act passed, Chief Justice Roberts said it was constitutional because of a Congressional anchor it was base on. In 2017 Congress took that anchor away, thus taking away the basis on which the act was declared constitutional. The leg that the act was standing on was taken away. What that means is that our government should come up with a way that works better and works for everyone. If we believe in our set of laws, then the act should be removed from law. But there should be protection of those with pre-existing conditions, there should be more choice, there should be lower prices. It’s not about politics at all, it’s about the Constitution and finding something better. We can’t allow for inconsistencies in our laws or exceptions based on whether we believe Congress will act as it should.
AH: This has been an enlightening conversation, and I know you have other plans. But one more quickie: The Open Records laws in the state are important to my profession. You guys have shown some toughness on the issue. Is it something you believe in?
CC: Absolutely. Our Open Records laws are important. In fact, we’ve given those laws a little teeth, shown that criminal charges can be brought against people who willfully disobey them. I think in most cases people who disobey these laws do so not maliciously but more out of a lack of understanding of the laws. That’s why education is important. But we also intend to make it clear that transparency is vitally important to our government, and we will prosecute anyone who willfully withholds information from the public.