Candidates for Chatham County District Attorney outlined starkly different approaches to spearheading local justice efforts during a Monday forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Coastal Georgia and Forever Tybee.
The debate was the first between Incumbent Meg Heap, a Republican, and challenger Shalena Cook Jones, Democrat, ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.
The candidates covered several issues during the session. One that is currently top of mind with the public, the role of the DA’s office when it comes to protection of police officers and minority citizens, drew particular attention from Heap and Jones.
Head said has instituted policies to be transparent in officer-involved cases in her two terms in office. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is called in on those cases.
“We instituted a policy where all officer involved cases are presented to a grand jury and the findings of that grand jury are made public. The entire proceedings are recorded and you can ask for a copy of it,” she said, adding that her offices has worked along with the Savannah’s mayor and city council to avoid issues seen in other states.
“I think it’s the transparency and that and the work that we have done with the grand jury” that’s made a difference, Heap said.
Jones said Heap’s approach is falling short and one of her first actions if elected would be to create an independent agency to investigate use-of-force police shootings and critical officer involved incidents.
“That panel needs to be convened and created and operative before an event occurs and not after. we need to make sure that what we would do is provide clarity to the community as to what they could expect from us,” said Jones, who is running for elected office for the first time.
In each incident Jones said the panel would issue a decision as to whether or not they were going to prosecute within 90 to 120 days of the completed investigatory file.
“We need to make sure that across this community we are not cherry picking which cases we decide to take to the news into a press conference and instead that we are handling these kinds of incidents the same way all the time, she said. “That is the only way we can provide justice for the officers as well as the community.”
If elected DA Jones said her top priority would be to create efficiency in the criminal justice system.
She also intends to make sure prosecutors have proper training in areas such as implicit bias, poverty simulation training and prosecutorial trial skills.
Such training “would help prosecutors to move cases through the system more efficiently and more effectively,” she said.
Heap said she intends to continue working and expanding programs such as the Family Justice Center, which provides services to victims of domestic violence.
“We started the Family Justice Center; it works with our most vulnerable victims, our children and our women and men of domestic violence. We actually went across the United States and saw that where there is a Family Justice Center, you will see a reduction in domestic violence recantation and domestic violence homicides,” Heap said.
Heap said the Family Justice Center essentially brings services to the victims so that they don’t go from program to program in search of help.
“We have found when they keep going from program to program to program, we lose them. And so when we lose them, we can’t prosecute the case, and they’re still in a in a cycle of domestic violence.”
The candidates agreed on other fronts. Asked whether or not the DA should be prosecuting cases in the courtroom or serving as an administrator, both Jones and Heap said the DA must do both.
“I think that the DA should not just be a figurehead or a face for the office. I think that person should show themselves worthy and take on the cases that they deem to be most important, as well as those that present the greatest risks and dangers to our community,” Jones said, adding that building the right team with proper training was also an important factor.
Heap said her experience as a prosecutor allows her to coach younger attorneys about cases, but she must also oversee the department’s $9 million budget and other similar factors.
“I think it’s a combination of the two. I came in to being the district attorney after being a chief assistant where I did manage over 100 employees and I think that’s very important,” she said.
“You need to be very cognizant of HR issues, you need to understand employment issues. And I think that it’s combination that you need to have both.”
When it comes to hiring trail attorneys, Heap said she looks for those who are willing to work hard and willing to work with other people, have dynamic personalities and are competent.
Jones said it’s important to make sure hires have the wisdom, trust and judge to make the right calls to efficiently move their cases.
“I would make it my business to make sure that I recruit and retain prosecutors who are diverse and who understand the sensibility of these opportunities they serve,” she said.
Speaking more to the topic of diversity, Jones said the current DA’s office has a high level of turnover, which she believes indicates that the office doesn’t maintain a culture that is sensitive to diversity or representative of the community.
Heap disagreed, noting that 44% of her staff are minorities in a county with a 47% minority population.
” I think we are equal. I want diversity. Absolutely,” she said.
Another issue both candidates agreed on was leaving political party affiliation out of the job and serving all people in the county.
“My duty as a prosecutor is to pursue justice,” Jones said.
“What that means is to bring about right outcomes for all segments of our community as it relates to political partisanship. The legislature of this state has been arguing for many, many years over whether or not the DA’s race should be a partisan race. I believe that it should be nonpartisan.”
Heap said when a case comes in the office looks at the facts. They don’t ask a victim what political party they belong to.
“That’s never been a question,” she said.
Watch a replay of the virtual forum on the League of Women Voters Coastal Georgia Facebook page.