Are political courage and smart ideas enough to unseat an entrenched incumbent? Jeremy Salter is counting on a thoughtful electorate ready for overdue criminal justice reform as the challenger in the contest for Floyd County District Attorney against incumbent Leigh Patterson. That Patterson is the most prominent of the four local public officials in the county who recently changed their affiliation from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party adds an element of drama to the race. Salter was gracious enough to consent to an interview. Here are his responses.
Hickman: If you don’t mind, I would like to start by asking a couple of questions about political process before moving on to substantive policy. Challenging Leigh Patterson for District Attorney is a courageous move. Most people who decide to run for public office avoid taking on a long term incumbent. What motivated you to do so?
Salter: The thought of running for political office has been one I have entertained since I was young. However, there are a couple of reasons I decided to run in this election. First and foremost, I believe our community needs to expand our accountability court programs. I believe a concern for the results of our sentences is critical to reducing crime and improving our community. Second, my passion has always rested in criminal law. I was mentored by a great criminal defense attorney in Clayton County, Georgia. The activities I participated in during law school were directed to making me a more effective criminal law professional and my first legal position was as a criminal defense attorney. I see running for and becoming district attorney as the next step in my evolution as an attorney and a return to my passion.
I am sure my opponent has been an effective prosecutor. However, I do not see running against her and being the long-term incumbent as a particular issue. I feel our democratic process should encourage choices and I hope I offer a choice of change that our community needs.
Hickman: That Patterson was one of a gang of four party turncoats still has a lot of people puzzled. Can you offer an insight into why that happened? Do you think the turncoats anticipated that they would be appearing on a party ticket headed by Donald Trump?
Salter: Of course, I cannot assume to know my opponents personal thoughts. She was quoted stating she was more conservative fiscally and more conservative about law enforcement. There is not a lot of substance in those statements to evidence what she means.
I am a Democrat because I am progressive on most social issues which are not relevant to this position. In fact, our Republican governor supports the positions and changes our county needs. Governor Deal has stated we need to be “Smart on Crime” which would include saving taxpayer dollars and breaking the cycle of repeat offenders by instituting accountability courts. These courts allow a team of professionals within the legal and law enforcement communities to identify those individuals who can be brought back from the cliff of their poor choices to be rehabilitated. Drug Courts, which our county is one of only a couple in the state not to have established, have been PROVEN to reduce crime, save money and ensure compliance. I would argue is it not conservative at all to not have already established this program and our current regime is costing our taxpayers more money and returning individuals to their communities to commit more crimes.
Hickman: Do you credit the statement by Jim Orr reported in the Rome News-Tribune that he was not put up to objecting to your candidacy on a picayune technicality by your opponent?
Salter: There is no question Mr. Orr took the steps to be the individual to challenge my candidacy. He seemingly prepared and signed the complaint and appeared in a prosecutorial capacity. However, the hearing was attended by my opponent and several people associated with my opponent. Moreover, Mr. Orr openly admitted to my attorney he consulted with my opponent before filing the complaint and admitted the same to the Rome News-Tribune. Whether anyone “had to twist his arm” or not, he filed a complaint using overruled law, knowing or should have known my candidacy was legal, and he did conspire with my opponent to either eliminate my challenge or at least defame me.
Hickman: We’ve seen the eruption of wingnut extremism not just nationally but also locally this year. Does the District Attorney have a role to play in discouraging what seems like a coarsening of our civil discourse?
Salter: I think we all have a role in discouraging what has been a coarsening of our discourse. America is great because we are a mixing pot of ideas. We are a team working towards a better world. No one person or organization is wholly right or wrong.
As an elected official, though the work is non-partisan, a district attorney is a role model in our society. So, I believe it is critical the district attorney serve to better our public interactions by acting as a role model showing mutual respect for opinions in public statements. I would add though the responsibilities and tasks the district attorney performs should be wholly separated from the political process and discussions.
Hickman: If you had been the District Attorney when that mob of neo-Nazis and KKK showed up in Rome earlier this year, would you have issued any sort of public statement?
Salter: If I were asked to make a comment on that subject I would have made a comment. I believe in the freedom of speech. As awful as the message could be, if the message is delivered legally it is deserving of the same protections that are provided to those messages proven to be the vehicles of positive change. The position of district attorney is not truly a political one. However, I believe our elected officials are community leaders and beacons of direction. I would gladly state I do not support their message, but I am glad we live in a free country and that freedom is equal.
Hickman: Many observers believe that the role of the District Attorney as ‘sanction setter’ — deciding what crimes to charge, what to plea negotiate etc. — has been enhanced as judicial discretion has been reduced by mandatory minimum sentencing laws. How would that figure in the approach that you will take to serving as District Attorney?
Salter: Let me first start by saying the District Attorney is tasked with enforcing the laws of this state. To that end, if our General Assembly has passed laws requiring certain minimum sentences, then my office and the Court must enforce those laws.
Having said that, the existence of minimum sentencing laws does not impact my judicial discretion as a district attorney. The district attorney has the discretion to move for an indictment and determine what charges he or she seeks from the indictment. Most offenses have so called “lesser included offenses” which could be sought under the right circumstances. The minimum sentencing laws really only factor in if a conviction entered on the offense mandating such minimum sentence.
This is again where the Accountability Courts are important. There may be some drug offenses or lower level felonies where we can break the cycle of repeat offending and condition an individual who made a very poor choice to make more productive and legal choices in the future. This prevents future crime, helps already overloaded systems, saves lives and saves money. However, there are some offenses that deserve more extreme punishments. There are some individuals where rehabilitation in not sufficient in and of itself and the safety of our community, before any other goal, has to be placed first. Determining “who is who” is a really tough decision. However, simply being “tough on crime” and deferring to a minimum sentence in a “my hands are tied” scenario does not truly serve our state, the victims, or our community.
Hickman: What else needs to be done to make sure that everyone in our community feels that the District General is their District Attorney?
Salter: I seek to have an inclusive relationship and open dialogue with the residents of our county, and in particular, the rest of the legal community. I believe we are consistently evolving as a society and should be open and receptive to change when it works and is warranted. I also believe criticism is important…it is not always right, but it stems from some source. I believe a leader has to be open to exploring how they can do everything better, consistently seeking improvement.
If our community sees the district attorney as open and approachable, they will be free to voice their opinions (right or wrong). If the district attorney is willing to consider if and how things can be done better, then the community will know their concerns are being received and feel included in the process.