Feb. 24-Keith Higgins, the circuit's newly elected top prosecutor, is just as interested in preventing crimes as he is prosecuting those who commit them.
That was the message Higgins delivered Tuesday during an address to the Rotary Club of St. Simons Island.
But he and his staff are facing a daunting challenge. Because of COVID-19, which prompted the suspension of jury trials, circuit prosecutors must contend with a backlog of nearly 4,000 criminal cases.
Introduced as an Eagle Scout, a U.S. Marine veteran and an accomplished attorney with more than 30 years experience, Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Higgins outlined his plans for moving forward.
Higgins defeated incumbent DA Jackie Johnson in the November general election, ending her 10-year tenure in that position.
Higgins' 35 years as an attorney in Glynn County includes 20 years with the Brunswick DA's office before he entered private practice.
The Brunswick Judicial Circuit office represents Glynn, Camden, Wayne, Appling and Jeff Davis counties.
"I'm honored to serve you as your new district attorney," Higgins said. "It's about doing what's right and seeking justice in every case. This job will never be about me."
Since winning the election, Higgins has busied himself with putting together his new staff for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. He adopted what was left of a $4.6 million operating budget for fiscal year 2021, which ends July 1.
Higgins recruited Ian Heap from the Chatham County Judicial Circuit to serve as chief assistant district attorney. Veteran Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Jody Ponsell is the new chief investigator for the Brunswick DA.
Among those retained from Johnson's staff are attorneys Jan Kennedy and Robert German. German will head the Camden office and Kennedy will manage the Baxley office, which oversees the smaller rural counties of Appling and Jeff Davis.
The DA staff will have 15 full-time assistant district attorneys. A contract attorney will represent the DA in drug court.
The DA office will have a total of 51 employees, and all positions are more than 90 percent filled.
"We are working diligently to get these people in the right places," he said.
In general, law enforcement officers make the arrests, and it is up to the DA's office to decide whether to prosecute the case in court, Higgins said. The formula is simple, he said. There must be "sufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt," he said. Also, the prosecutor must "believe the person did in fact do the crime."
The DA's new staff will have its hands full. The Brunswick DA circuit has a backlog of 3,903 cases waiting to go to trial.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, jury trials have been suspended in Georgia for nearly a year by the state Supreme Court. They will remain so at least through March 9.
Higgins said he is equally committed to pretrial intervention programs that will keep nonviolent offenders out of jail when it can be helped. Incarceration is not necessarily the answer for juveniles, drug addicts and the mentally ill, he said.
"We want to work with the judicial system to develop pretrial diversion programs that are meaningful," he said.
Juvenile delinquents could be reached early through intervention programs and placed on a path toward becoming productive citizens with no criminal records, he said. Successful treatment of addicts through drug court programs could cut down on a number of crimes, including theft and dope dealing, he said.
There also needs to be a better way to address offenders with mental illness than incarceration.
Higgins said an average of 35 to 40 percent of inmates in the Glynn County Detention Center take behavioral medications. Many of those suffering mental illness are veterans, he said.
A year in the county jail costs about $18,680 per inmate, he said. A two-year pretrial diversion program costs half that, Higgins said.
Higgins said the care and accommodation needed for inmates with mental illness creates daunting challenges for jail staff.
"Addressing these issues in a different way is not only a better way to deal with these issues. It just makes financial sense," Higgins said. "It makes social sense, and it makes a difference in the community to try and put people on the right path."
The DA's office also will serve as an ardent advocate for the victims of crime and their families, he said.
Minorities make up 37 percent of his staff, he said.
"I feel it's important to reflect the community you serve," he said.
In addition to prosecuting criminals, Higgins hopes to focus on creating an environment in which there are less crimes to prosecute.
"A district attorney also needs to reach out to the stakeholders and try to reduce the number of crimes that are being committed in the communities," he said. "If we reduce crime, everybody benefits from that."