Election 2007: Two vying for DA seat in 9th Judicial District|[10/23/07]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 23, 2007

There is a two-way contest for district attorney in the 9th Judicial District, which includes all of Warren, Issaquena and Sharkey counties. The candidates are both Warren County residents and are the incumbent, Gil Martin, 62, seeking re-election as an independent, and Richard E. “Ricky” Smith Jr., 48, the Democratic nominee.

The questions they were asked in writing and their written responses follow.


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1: Warren County has established a Drug Court as a sentencing option. What are your views on this and other optional sentences?

Martin: I am the Drug Court prosecutor. I attend the weekly meetings of Drug Court and present an individual’s case information for consideration by the committee. I determine if an individual is charged with an offense which qualifies for Drug Court or whose criminal history may exclude him or her from Drug Court. I also check with the police agency involved to get its input. I have recommended over 150 persons for participation in the program. The purpose of Drug Court is to get to the root cause of some criminal behavior: drug addiction. By treating addiction, Drug Court hopes to stop future criminal activity. With the support of the community and the hard work of the Drug Court personnel, we will accomplish this goal. Other alternative sentencing programs are also recommended by my office. The “boot camp” program and restitution centers are valuable alternatives to prison sentences.

Smith: I am a strong advocate for the Drug Court. Four years ago I campaigned for the creation of the Drug Court. I knew then that the way the system was treating first-time offenders was outdated. Two years after I began my campaign for a drug court it was created by Judge Vollor along with Judge Patrick and others. I am proud of the work we are doing. We are changing lives and rebuilding families. The Drug Court is not the only answer, however. We need to continuously look for alternative methods to deal with the ever-increasing problems of drug abuse.

2: Frequently, people facing new indictments have criminal histories. Is this situation getting better or worse? What is the district attorney’s role in this regard?

Martin: Statistically, roughly 50 percent of criminals will commit new crimes. My office researches the criminal history of each defendant. We indict defendants as habitual offenders, meaning they have two prior felony convictions. This enhancement will increase the prison time this individual must serve. I want repeat offenders to serve longer sentences. My prosecutions have focused on the habitual offender. This year alone, 20 defendants have been indicted as habitual offenders.

Smith: The problem of repeat offenders in our district is getting worse. The district attorney has the absolute responsibility to protect the citizens of Warren County by making sure that repeat offenders are taken off our streets. Recent headlines in the paper clearly show that criminals are receiving multiple felony convictions before they receive any significant jail time. Allowing multiple offenders to remain on our streets often causes our good, law-abiding citizens to have to live in fear in their homes. This must stop. As district attorney I will protect our community by taking repeat offenders out of our community.

3: What do you believe would help the Office of District Attorney function more effectively?

Martin: I believe the function of the district attorney’s office is to fairly prosecute those charged with crimes, work with the crime victims to get justice and restitution, and help some individuals with criminal charges to reform their behavior. Good prosecution begins with good police work. A defendant facing a thoroughly investigated case usually pleads guilty rather than face a trial. A well-trained police force, an adequately staffed crime lab and an experienced prosecutor, all make for effective prosecution. In the 16 years I have served as your district attorney I have prosecuted over 7,500 cases. I and my staff have over 58 years law enforcement experience and 82 years legal experience.

Smith: Most important to the effectiveness of the district attorney is his ability to work with law enforcement. The men and women of our law enforcement community risk their lives daily to identify and apprehend dangerous criminals. The district attorney must treat those members of law enforcement with respect and dignity. The district attorney must also be personally involved in the victim’s rights organizations in the community. In order to understand the needs of the victims, the district attorney must hear the voices of the victims. Because of the number of cases that come through the district attorney’s office, all attorneys in the office, including the DA himself, must be ready to try jury trials.

4: What is the most misunderstood aspect of the Office of District Attorney?

Martin: Suspended sentences. Only first offenders who commit nonviolent and non-drug sale crimes, get probation or completely suspended sentences. These persons have conditions attached to their probation, such as: report regularly to a Mississippi Department of Corrections officer, pay restitution to victims, pay fines to the county, periodic drug testing and keeping a curfew. If they fail, which about 50 percent of probationers do, then the sentencing judge can send them to prison. My office has collected over $5 million in victim restitution and over $3.2 million for Warren, Sharkey and Issaquena counties, with most of this coming from individuals with suspended sentences.

Smith: The most misunderstood aspect of the criminal justice system is who actually sets the sentences criminal defendants receive. Almost every sentence handed down by our circuit judges comes from a plea offer made by the district attorney and not from the judge himself. So in almost every case, the sentences the public sees in the newspaper are ones that come directly from the DA’s office and are not determined by the circuit judges. It is the responsibility of the DA to thoroughly investigate each case and make a proper and sufficient recommendation to the court as to the sentence the defendant will receive.

5: Why do you want to be district attorney?

Martin: I love the job. I read every case file submitted to my office. I personally handle every grand jury in all my counties. I go to crime scenes, even in the middle of the night. I enjoy working with law enforcement officers. I have learned a great deal in the last 16 years and apply those lessons every day. I have assembled an experienced staff and we work hard, long hours. But at the end of the day, I get a great deal of satisfaction knowing I have done my best to serve the people of Warren, Sharkey and Issaquena counties.

Smith: I know I can make Warren, Sharkey and Issaquena counties safer. I have the ability to work with the judges and with law enforcement to take the repeat and violent offenders out of our community. I also have the desire to help our young people who are suffering with drug abuse through the use of Drug Court and other programs. Mainly, though, I have the energy, the desire and the dedication to tell the difference between those who need and deserve a second chance and those who only want to live off the misery of others.