Sara Totonchi has grown accustomed to fighting for the underdog.
The newly named director of the Southern Center for Human Rights has lobbied for 10 years in the halls of the state legislature for the rights of convicted criminals and registered sex offenders, with some lawmakers more open to the group’s causes than others.
"Sometimes it can be very challenging and even lonely to work on some of the difficult issues we take on, but for the most part it’s incredibly rewarding to do this very important work," Totonchi said.
The Southern Center for Human Rights, based in Atlanta, has advocated for sex offenders in Hall County and across the state in a class action federal lawsuit challenging the restrictions of Georgia’s sex offender registry law, considered the most severe in the nation.
The group won an injunction against a law that would prevent sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of bus stops and effectively force most people on the registry to move out of populous counties.
The center earlier this year won an injunction that allows registered sex offenders to volunteer in churches. The law previously restricted sex offenders from church work.
The Southern Center for Human Rights also is heavily involved in death penalty work and provides lawyers for capital defendants in various stages of the legal process.
Earlier this month, the center filed suit on behalf of nearly 200 criminal defendants in North Georgia who were denied attorneys for their appeals.
It’s not popular work, but it has its champions.
The nonprofit organization, with 10 staff attorneys plus support staff, has a $2 million budget paid for through foundations and individual donations.
Totonchi, 33, has been the center’s public policy director and spokeswoman since 2001. She is the first nonlawyer to lead the group. She will take the helm Jan. 1, as previous director Lisa Kung is leaving to work in a fellowship in New Orleans. Kung was named director in 2006 when senior counsel Stephen Bright stepped down to spend more time in the courtroom and classrooms.
Totonchi was born in London to an Iraqi father and Irish mother, with her family moving to Chicago when she was a child.
"My activism started early," she said, recalling how she saw her parents provide medical care for poor people while working in her physician father’s Chicago office. "My family has always cared deeply for those who are less fortunate. My parents were very generous of their time and resources to help those who had less than we did and that had a huge impact on my world view."
Totonchi moved to Georgia from Chicago to attend Berry College in Rome, where she received a degree in family and community services.
Totonchi said she’s been "firmly opposed to the death penalty for most of my life," which led her to the Southern Center after two years with the Georgia Commission on Family Violence.
Totonchi views the center’s work as important in upholding the constitution in an adversarial justice system.
"Our system breaks down when one side has resources and the other doesn’t," she said. "It’s one of the most fundamental pieces of our democracy, to provide for fairness in trials and to hold truth to the value that people are innocent until proven guilty."
She points out the center has its share of victories, including a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case involving the racial makeup of juries in Louisiana.
"We often win, so we know we’re doing right by the constitution," she said.
Totonchi’s new duties for the center will be primarily in administration, fundraising and lobbying.
"I want to continue to build up the Southern Center to be a powerful organization that has the capacity to have great wins, and to continue the incredible work of Steve Bright and Lisa Kung in shining a light on the injustices that our system perpetuates," she said.