Rolling Out

DA Paul Howard shares how he revolutionized Atlanta’s criminal justice system

DA Paul Howard shares how he revolutionized Atlanta's criminal justice system
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard (Photo courtesy of Office of the Fulton County District Attorney)

Paul Howard has held down the state of Georgia, city of Atlanta and Fulton County as its first African American district attorney for an impressive six terms. Since the onset of his tenure in the Atlanta Judicial Circuit, his focus has been to rid the city of its astronomical homicide rates, which he’s done while simultaneously transforming the DA’s office in the process. He recently told rolling out how and why he did it in an exclusive interview.

What attracted you to the legal profession?

When I was 13 or 14, I had an opportunity to sit in a trial, and during the trial that my classmates and I observed, the supposed victim used the N-word to describe the two African American defendants in the case. As we sat there, we heard the court use the word, the prosecutors use it and the defense attorney. It was such a horrific experience for me that, even at a young age, I said I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a prosecutor so that other members of our community did not have to be put through that same humiliation.

What have been some of the most significant moments in your legal experience?

Becoming a lawyer, graduating from law school. I was the first in my family to do that. Passing the bar in my third year of law school was a big achievement and then actually getting to work as a prosecutor was a great achievement for me and my family. Then, later on, being elected as district attorney and being the first African American district attorney in the history of our state, was just a huge achievement, not just for me, but for African Americans in our community.

What’s kept you there? What’s prevented you from moving on and doing something different?

I actually love the work, but I think what really attracts me is that I see so many problems with the criminal justice system that I think are repairable or fixable. My commitment was to help the people in our community. So, as long as there are still problems, I am still driven to try and get those problems solved.

In your six terms, how many of those problems have you helped the community overcome, and how many more are there that you see need to be addressed?

One of the big problems that we had when I took over was this unreasonable number of homicides in our community. The 10 years before I came into office, the numbers steadily increased, but the 10 years since that time, the numbers dropped by 62 percent.

What qualities make for an effective lawyer?

I think an effective lawyer is one that is intellectually curious. The thing that distinguishes the good lawyer from the mediocre lawyer and the great lawyer is whether or not that lawyer is intellectually curious. That person is always digging and striving to do better. [It’s] important to develop that curiosity and develop the drive and desire to ensure you [solve problems and] get answers.

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