Speaking on the day set aside to honor the late Martin Luther King Jr., the incoming president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said Atlanta’s role as the “cradle of the civil rights movement” is one reason he hung his shingle here more than 20 years ago.
“I’ve always enjoyed driving down Auburn Avenue to the Martin Luther King historic site. It’s always been an inspiration to me,” said Lawrence Zimmerman.
Slated to be named president at GACDL’s Winter Conference at the State Bar of Georgia Friday, Zimmerman said he’s honored to lead an organization that has a stake in the ongoing struggle for civil rights.
“I believe that GACDL has a big role in the community when we promote justice and liberty over detention for our citizens,” he said. “Lawyers do so much for people in our state. Despite all the lawyer jokes you hear, we’re the ones behind the scenes fighting for everybody’s rights.”
Born in Rhode Island, Zimmerman’s family moved to Miami when he was young. He attended the University of Florida as an undergraduate and returned to Rhode Island to earn his law degree at Roger Williams University.
Zimmerman started his own criminal law practice in Atlanta after a short stint with a Marietta firm and has served as a legal analyst for several print and television news outlets. In 2018, he was part of the legal team presented with the Southern Center for Human Rights’ Gideon’s Promise Award for their representation of Basil Eleby, the homeless man accused of setting the fire that engulfed a portion of Interstate 85 in 2017.
Once facing felony charges for arson and criminal damage to property, Eleby’s lawyers were able to get them nolle prossed in return for his enrollment in a drug treatment program under a Fulton County Superior Court accountability court program.
Zimmerman said he and his colleagues have been heartened by the criminal justice reforms initiated by former Gov. Nathan Deal and by his successor Brian Kemp’s judicial appointments over the past year.
“He has appointed women and minorities, including an openly gay female judge in Gwinnett County,” said Zimmerman, an “impressive” record.
“I hope this trend continues since it is important to have diversity on the bench and people from all walks of life overseeing cases,” he said.
Zimmerman also said GACDL was happy Kemp “agreed not to furlough our public defenders last year and reconsidered his initial decision. Our organization advocated against that as well, since it would not only impact that lawyer but also the citizens of our state who cannot afford representation.”
But Zimmerman said he is troubled by word that Kemp may pull $2 million in funding from the state’s accountability courts to fund an anti-gang initiative.
“I’ve just been reading statistics that people who successfully complete accountability court programs are 15% to 17% less likely to reoffend,” Zimmerman said.
Drug courts, mental health courts and veterans courts “are not about just giving people a pass to commit crime,” he said. “A lot of these people have substance issues, mental issues; we have the opioid crisis, a lot of people commit crimes to support their drug habit.”
Asked about the perennial complaints from prosecutors and Atlanta police officials that Fulton County judges are too prone to let repeat offenders out, Zimmerman said all the parties need to work together.
“I’ve been a lawyer for 20 years, and almost nothing has changed in Fulton County,” he said. “Certainly police and the district attorney’s office should be working together to reduce crime and prosecute those who are guilty. But some cases get a lot more attention than others, and taking one or two cases and saying that’s how things work in Fulton County—I don’t think it is.”
A big priority for GACDL is cash bail reform, Zimmerman said.
“A lot of people don’t have money for money bail,” Zimmerman said. “Courts need to make sure somebody can afford it when they’re setting bonds. Certainly every case is different, and it needs to be on a case-by-case basis. One size fits all never works.”
Zimmerman understands the public’s unease with reports of a revolving door for some offenders—his own car was broken into in Buckhead last year—but noted that overall crime is down and has been dropping in Georgia for the past several years.
“What you see a lot in Fulton County is they just want to rip up the whole thing and start again,” he said. “Just because one person gets a signature bond and commits another crime doesn’t mean there should be no more signature bonds.”
Zimmerman is hopeful that some measures under discussion at the General Assembly will bear fruit, including legislation that will allow convictions for misdemeanor marijuana possession to be expunged.
“We’re also hoping to see them raise the age for being tried as an adult to 18,” he said. “That’s not for violent crimes—robbery or murder or rape—but for other crimes where young men or women do something like get in a cafeteria food fight and wind up charged as adults. Youth should get a second chance instead of having to go before a superior court judge.”
Zimmerman said he was concerned to learn that new legislation allowing for a convicted sex offender to be placed on lifetime probation requiring GPS monitoring has been introduced after a law allowing some sex offenders to be ordered to wear monitors for life was thrown out by the Georgia Supreme Court last year.
“It seems like every year or two, they modify the sex offender laws,” he said, noting that such offenders are already subject to classification by the state Sexual Offender Registration Review Board.
“If they’re going to allow monitoring across the board, I’m not sure what the purpose of the registry is,” he said.
Another area of concern is a “gang registry” proposed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
“It seems like we’re always wanting to put people on registries,” he said, pointing to other lists, such as the Department of Human Services Division of Family and Human Services’ child abuse registry.
“All these lists: the sex offender list, the gang list, no-fly list, the convicted felon list—technology is great at prying into people’s private lives,” said Zimmerman. “We want people to succeed and move forward, but we have all these lists—it’s like a scarlet letter.”
Overall, he said, “looking across the state I’d say things are getting better. I know not everybody’s happy, not every prosecutor’s happy with the criminal justice reforms.”
“GACDL’s mission is to promote fairness and justice, making sure everybody has quality representation, everyone is treated fairly and not being throttled by government powers,” he said.
“There are innocent people accused of crimes, there are people who have committed crimes but never been prosecuted. You can go from one courtroom to the next in the same county and people are treated differently,” he said. “Yes, it’s gotten better, but there’s still a long way to go.”