Thursday, May 11, 2023

Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher (left) at a September 2022 speech to Savannah’s NAACP by Chatham district attorney Shalena Cook Jones. Credit: Jeffrey Glover

Misdemeanors into Chatham’s jail

Chatham County’s sheriff, who controls the local jail, quietly made a major decision last week. 

Sheriff John Wilcher said he would begin accepting all people into the jail charged with misdemeanors – a reversal of a Covid-era policy that turned away low-level offenders to avoid overcrowding. 

That Wilcher didn’t lock up people accused of misdemeanors like shoplifting and marijuana possession was a point of common ground between the 78-year-old sheriff and Chatham County’s reform-driven district attorney Shalena Cook Jones. The Chatham DA has been an advocate for shifting focus and funds away from incarceration and towards programs that will reduce crime. 

But the relationship between Wilcher and DA Jones took a turn last week when Wilcher hosted Gov. Brian Kemp to sign a bill into law meant to target so-called “progressive prosecutors” like Jones. 

The Current’s Jake Shore reports on the return to jailing misdemeanors and how the complicated relationship between the old sheriff and the young DA plays into the policy change.

Electronic ankle monitor Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Harsher punishments for ‘sexual felonies’

A bill pushed for by a St. Mary’s state representative became law last week, adding harsher penalties for people convicted of sexual crimes who offend again and tightening electronic ankle monitoring restrictions if those individuals receive probation.

The law, called “Mariam’s law” after the 2021 kidnapping and murder of an Atlanta woman, mandates life sentences in prison or a split sentence of prison then lifetime probation for people who are convicted or plead guilty to a second so-called “sexual felony.” The law defines a sexual felony as rape, sexual exploitation of children, kidnapping involving a minor under 14 years old (excluding a parent), and trafficking, among other crimes.

Rep. Steven Sainz (R-St. Mary’s) has pushed for the bill’s passage for four years, before finding success this past legislative session.

Mariam’s law also mandates electronic ankle monitor tracking of the twice offenders of sexual felonies who receive probation as their sentence. The offender has to pay for the cost of being tracked. State Affairs GA has more information on Sainz’s law and how it closes a loophole that let some people convicted of sexual offenses avoid monitoring.

Clarification: In last week’s newsletter, The Current incorrectly reported the title of Laura Weatherly. She is a court specialist with Chatham County Juvenile Court. Additionally, the story has been clarified to reflect that although human trafficking of minors by physical kidnapping is rare, trafficked children are being emotionally and mentally kidnapped. Children cannot consent to human trafficking.

A Savannah police car parked outside the department’s headquarters on Habersham Street on Aug. 17, 2022.

Crime in Savannah, by the numbers

When people talk about crime in Savannah, reality can get mixed in with personal perception because of anecdotal tales and misrepresented statistics.

That’s why The Current‘s data reporter Maggie Lee wanted to take a look at Savannah’s crime numbers to get a better sense of what crime actually looks like in the city.

She re-visualized what some of the Savannah Police Department statistics actually show: One graph points out how property crimes vastly outweigh violent ones in the city. Thefts from vehicles make up 22% of all reported crimes this year so far, while one homicide has been reported.

Lee also explains the difference between burglary, robbery and larceny. Not to mention, “sudden snatching.”

Take a look for yourself at the statistics, so you can have more informed conversations about crime in Savannah.

Have a question, comment or story idea? Email me at

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Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Prior to joining The Current, Jake worked for the Island Packet and...