A Note from the DA
May is Mental Health Awareness month, but what does that have to do with our work in the DA’s Office? Actually, a lot. It comes in various forms for our office: mental health in relation to offenders, mental health in relation to victims, and mental health in relation to our team members.
Mental Health for Victims
Being the victim of a crime is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can go through, they often suffer from anger, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. Our office has a highly trained team of Victim Advocates using trauma informed techniques to provide necessary services for victims of crime in our community.
Our advocates work with and for the victims to make sure that their needs are taken care of. They stay with the victim every step of the way to provide the victim with updates on their case, education on the criminal justice system, teaching them about their rights as victims, and attending court with them. Perhaps most importantly they offer emotional support and aid in finding resources and services for victims.
Additionally, our office participates in the Georgia Crime Victims Compensation Program which eases financial burdens faced by victims of crime. This service can help with costs associated with the mental health challenges victims may face.
It is essential that victims get their mental health needs met so that they may begin to heal and address any barriers in the way of that healing. Mental health services help victims to recover, rebuild, build resilience, and improve quality of life.
Mental Health for Offenders
Reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics state that more than half of incarcerated persons in the United States have mental health issues. Those who struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives are
more likely to have multiple convictions and serve longer sentences than those without mental health needs. It is our job, as instrumental players in the lives of justice involved people, to pay attention to the ramifications of mental health on criminal justice outcomes. We need to listen and we need to act.
There are steps that DA’s Offices and justice systems around the country can take in an effort to alleviate the, often negative, relationship between mental health and the justice system. These steps come in three phases; pre-arrest, diversion, and re-entry.
We are lucky to live in a community that has put a focus into pre-arrest mental health services by creating co-responder teams in Clarke County, we currently have 3 teams where a trained mental health professional is paired with an officer. It is important to continue building upon pre-arrest tactics to reduce initial with the justice system, a tactic that shows greater long-term outcomes for offenders and those who make mental health calls to police.
Mental Health for our Team Members
The mental health and wellbeing of team members in the DA’s Office is an essential component of success. Our team works together, and for one another, to create a safe and fulfilling working environment. In order to consider the needs of our team we have created work from home policies, hold team celebrations, and provide up to date resource lists. Our team is also able to take advantage of the mental health services offered by the Athens Clarke County Government.
In the Courtroom
Record Restriction Event
On April 23rd the District Attorney’s Office took part in a record restriction event at Goodwill Thrift Store and Donation Center on the east side of Athens. This event was held in collaboration with the Solicitor General’s Office. Record restriction is when eligible criminal records on an individual’s criminal history report are restricted, meaning that the public cannot view them. These records are still accessible to law enforcement agencies.
The April event was a success with more than 50 sealing orders filed. Restricting of records may help individuals get a job, obtain a job certification, secure housing, get housing assistance, get a student loan, open eligibly for certain government programs, or simply get a fresh start. Record restriction often has life changing effects on individuals who were previously being held back by their records. The DA’s Office is proud to participate in record restriction events, and in giving people a second chance.
In the Community
Marigolds you , murals, and the Mayor, what is the common thread here? They are all an integral part of Winterville--a hidden gem within Clarke County and part of the Western Judicial Circuit service area.
DA Gonzalez and members of her team began an afternoon in April seated around a farmhouse conference table in Winterville Mayor Dodd Ferrelle’s office. The office itself felt like a small microcosm of the town; charming, rustic, adorned with art. Innovation and fresh ideas hung on the walls and sat in neat piles of paperwork on the mayor’s desk. Mayor Ferrelle discussed his small, but effective, police force made up of 3 full-time and 5 part-time officers. The Winterville Police Department is tasked with keeping the town safe, a task that the Mayor made clear they were extremely proficient in. DA Gonzalez inquired about the needs of the community in regards to public safety there was no hesitation from Ferrelle as he discussed the challenge that also happens to be the awareness piece of the month: mental health.
In Winterville, echoing nearly every other town in the United States, officers are often called out to situations that turn out to be a mental health crisis. Officers are often undertrained in how to handle these situations, a fact that the Mayor acknowledged. While there are three co-responder teams in Athens, Winterville does not have one of their own, Ferrelle wishes to change this.
After an important discussion on public safety, the DA team wove through Winterville’s town center stopping to look at each piece of art, taking in the individual brush strokes, the murals designed by local children. They walked to the community garden then to the old bank that has been converted into a space for the Neighborhood Leader of Winterville to work out of in pursuit of betterment for the community-a work of art in itself. After stopping to observe Chandler Park and the art instillation it contained with walkways made up of commemorative bricks, DA Gonzalez applied to give a donation for a brick to be placed in memory of crime victims.
National Crime Victims’ Rights Week
The week of April 24th was National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Our office held two candlelight vigils for National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, one at the Athens-Clarke Courthouse and one at the Oconee County Courthouse. On the steps of the Athens-Clarke courthouse we were joined by the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office as well as Mayor Kelly Girtz as the group spoke and shared in honor of victims. In Oconee County Sheriff Hale and Commissioner Chuck Horton joined us outside the Courthouse along with members of the community as we honored those affected by crime.
The DA’s Office also supported and participated in a special addition of Rabbit Box Storytelling in honor of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week titled ‘Lives Interrupted: Crime Victims’ Stories’. Members of the community shared moving stories about their lived experiences. The handing of the microphone back to the victim is an important one, allowing victims to tell their stories if they wish can be an important step in the healing process and helpful to other victims. We are proud to be in a community that provides that stage.