Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr talked about human trafficking, the opioid crisis and elder abuse, and briefly mentioned cybercrime and gang activity, as the Statesboro Rotary Club’s guest speaker this week.
The newspaper took the opportunity Monday to ask him whether sanctuary cities are a real thing in Georgia and whether cities can really decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Carr listed human trafficking first among five problem areas his office is working with the Legislature and law enforcement agencies at the federal, state and local levels to address.
“When we talk about human trafficking, we’re talking about domestic minor sex trafficking,” Carr said. “We’re talking about adults who are selling children for sex.”
The average victim, he said, is a 12- to 14-year-old girl.
In January, Carr, in cooperation with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and other state attorneys general around the country, announced the “Demand an End” campaign against child sex trafficking.
“There should be zero tolerance as it relates to this issue,” he said. “We’ve got to prosecute those that are perpetrating these crimes. You’ve got to get rehabilitation to those that are victims. … We also have to focus on the demand side, and that’s what we’re focusing on as state attorneys general, focusing on those who would go out and purchase children for sex.”
Attorney general for 19 months now, Carr was appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to fill the remaining half-term of former Attorney General Sam Olens, who resigned Nov. 1, 2016, to become president of Kennesaw State University, a job Olens left last December. Now seeking a four-year term, Carr, a Republican, faces a challenge from Charlie Bailey, a Democrat, in the Nov. 6 general election.
On the subject of “the opioid crisis,” Carr cited a statistic that four Georgians a day die from opioid overdoses. Opioids include frequently abused prescription painkillers such as oxycodone as well as purely illegal drugs such as heroin.
In his first months as attorney general, he saw that Georgia is home to “a lot of passion” and “a lot of experts” for dealing with this crisis, Carr said, mentioning law enforcement agencies and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but also Rotary Clubs and chambers of commerce. But they often weren’t communicating, he said.
So Carr created a statewide task force. It is not the sort of task force, made up of a few experts, that studies a topic for a few months and issues a report, he said.
“This is different,” Carr said. “We’re creating an infrastructure of communication between all of the experts. This task force is open to all 10.4 million Georgians. If you have an interest or expertise, we want you to be a part of it.”
So far the group has met twice, in October and April. The last session focused on the effects of opioids on newborns, the foster care system and youth athletics. The concern around youth sports is that pain medications prescribed for injuries can be a gateway to addiction for young athletes and their friends, he said.
Carr observed that abuse of older and at-risk Georgians ranges from online, phone and door-to-door scams to “outright physical and mental abuse.” He referred to financial exploitation as an area “where 90 percent of all the crimes are perpetrated by family members.”
But “unlicensed personal care homes” are a special concern for his department, Carr said.
“That’s the legal term,” he said. “But what it really is, it’s a basement, it’s an attic, it’s an extra room in an apartment complex, and what folks will do is they’ll recruit from a homeless shelter, from a hospital or a jail, and say, ‘Hey, give me two or three hundred dollars, you can live in my attic, you can live in my basement, but I need your veterans benefits, your EBT card, your Social Security card,’ and it’s all about stealing benefits.”
Many of the victims are especially vulnerable because of physical or mental illness and are also deprived of treatment, he said.
The attorney general’s office, officially the state Department of Law, has a Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, which Carr said works with U.S. attorneys, the FBI and state and local law enforcement on fighting elder abuse. The Medicaid fraud unit spearheaded the investigation leading to a recent “big bust” in Albany and Macon in which a nurse, a landlord and a financial planner were involved in the scheme, he said in a follow-up interview.
Encouraging citizens to report situations that raise suspicions, he said that local law enforcement needs “more eyeballs.”
A time for questions was announced. Noting that candidates for governor have said a lot about sanctuary cities, the reporter asked whether there are any actual sanctuary cities in Georgia and whether laws prohibiting them already exist. Sanctuary communities supposedly provide sanctuary to immigrants who might face deportation.
“The sanctuary city can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder,” Carr said.” We do have a state law that defines what a sanctuary city is.
“Let me say this,” he added. “I’m opposed to sanctuary cities for the following reason. We have a way of passing laws in this country. If you don’t like what the law is, if you don’t like what a federal law is, you go to Congress, you petition the government. If you don’t like what the state law is, you go the Legislature and you petition your government.
“But when we start picking and choosing which ones we’re going to enforce, that undermines our system of government and the rule of law, and so I’m absolutely opposed to it,” he said.
Asked after the meeting, the question about marijuana decriminalization follows a recent discussion by Statesboro city officials. That discussion veered to the more moderate step of making possession of less than one ounce of marijuana a “catch and release” offense for Statesboro’s police.
“Cities have some ability to deal with city ordinances,” Carr said. “They cannot dispense with a state law or a federal law.”
Then he said he obviously didn’t know enough about the specifics of what Statesboro is doing to make a statement on that. But Carr added that even state efforts to legalize marijuana for medical uses remain “complicated because you do have federal laws that you can’t transport across state lines. There are laws prohibiting cultivation, possession still.”
So he was asked about cities that are said to have decriminalized, including Atlanta, Savannah and Clarkston.
“They can reduce the amounts (that they fine you), but you can’t decriminalize it because that’s a state law,” Carr said.
The department he heads employs about 150 staff attorneys and 150 other professionals such as investigators and auditors and contracts additional lawyers around the state for specialized tasks.
Carr received his law degree from the University of Georgia Law School in 1999 after also attaining his bachelor’s degree at UGA. He was previously commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development for three years and before that worked with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, including six years as Isakson’s chief of staff, and was general counsel for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.