The ACLU of Georgia said Monday it hired former DeKalb County chief executive Burrell Ellis as the organization’s first political director, a new role designed to bolster the group’s profile and influence under the Gold Dome.
It is a return to the public spotlight for Ellis, who was a rising political star when he was elected the county’s top official in 2008. Instead, his tenure was most remembered for a long-running corruption probe that targeted his administration.
The civil rights group cited what it called Ellis’ personal experience with the “harsh reality of injustice” in announcing his hire, a point he embraced in an interview Monday about his new job.
“Justice doesn’t just happen. And I’ve seen what happens when justice doesn’t happen. People lose the right to a fair trial, the right to counsel, the right to defend themselves,” said Ellis, a real estate attorney. “We have to fight for that. We have to be vigilant to ensure those rights are protected.”
Ellis was found guilty in July 2015 of trying to shake down a county contractor and served an eight-month prison sentence for his convictions. He always maintained his innocence and the Georgia Supreme Court ruled unanimously in November 2016 that he had been denied a fair trial.
DeKalb County’s top prosecutor said in February she had dropped criminal charges against Ellis, deciding against a retrial after the state supreme court threw out his guilty verdict.
Andrea Young, the ACLU of Georgia’s executive director, said Ellis’ political experience and his personal background have given him a “360 view” of the criminal justice system – and an understanding of where it can be improved.
“This is what makes Burrell such a uniquely qualified person for this role. Smart justice and criminal justice reform are major ACLU initiatives,” said Young. “There are very few people who have his perspective of the criminal justice system.”
The hire comes at a pivotal time. Gov. Nathan Deal has spent a chunk of his political capital on a vast criminal justice overhaul that aimed to divert more nonviolent offenders away from costly prison sentence time. Ellis said Deal’s initiatives are just the start of changes he hopes to push over the coming years.
Among the group’s priorities including changes to bail-based systems that the ACLU has challenged as an unconstitutional violation and voter-rights initiatives. Ellis and Young also plan to pursue broader changes to the criminal justice system to focus more on rehabilitation than incarceration.
“We want to advance that work to reduce the numbers of people incarcerated in Georgia and take steps to get a fair system,” said Ellis. “Not just because it’s unjust and immoral, but because in many ways its ineffective.”