Shalena Cook Jones fervently defended her record as Chatham County’s district attorney at a speech on Sunday, emphasizing how her office is battling both violent crime and the scourge of mass incarceration.

The Democratic DA gave one of her first public accountings of her office’s drastically different approach to criminal justice since taking office in January 2021. She spoke to an audience of some three-dozen people at the First African Baptist Church in downtown Savannah.

After an 18-month pause in court activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jones’ office has mounted 14 murder trials resulting in guilty convictions and secured 33 murder convictions through guilty pleas, she said.

Jones, the second woman and first Black woman ever to serve as the county’s district attorney, said she and her 148-member office are working diligently to prosecute violent crimes. At the same time, however, Jones presented her broad vision for disentangling Chatham County citizens from a criminal justice system, she says has for too long been overly punitive, failed to make people safe, and disproportionately affected people of color. 

Crime is increasing because of “policies that will have you believe that putting people behind bars for extended periods of time is keeping you safe …  it is not keeping you safe, it is not keeping the citizens of America safe, and it is not keeping the citizens of Chatham County safe,” Jones said. 

She pointed to how her agency has focused resources on prevention efforts – before young people can become stuck in the criminal justice system – like “Show Us Your Guns.” The recently-established program helps youths facing gun possession charges with need-based responses, like housing support, education, conflict resolution or job training instead of jail or prison time. 

Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook-Jones speaking at a NAACP meeting. Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current GA

Jones also noted the DA’s office has made expungements more available, so formerly incarcerated people can get past criminal charges removed from their records, and established a data collection culture for “smart prosecution.” 

Jones, a Democrat, is not on the ballot in November. But the increase in crime during her tenure has become a talking point for local Republicans calling out Democrats on crime, with one, Savannah-area state representative Ron Stephens (District 126), describing her as the “Democrats’ Soros-funded district attorney” who “will not prosecute violent crime.”

Savannah Police Department statistics do not reflect the dire picture of the post-Covid crime surge painted by Stephens and other local Republicans.

Stephens misleadingly cited crime statistics from September, stating that Part 1 crimes – which include everything under the sun from violent to property crimes – were up 97%. What he failed to mention was that only applied to one swath of downtown Savannah, and theft from cars drove the statistical spike – not violent crime.

Across the city, reported Part 1 crimes are up 8% since 2021 and up 22% from 2020, according to the most recent numbers.

Still, calling out Jones, progressive district attorneys, and other Democrats on crime is a nationwide trend. As campaigning for this year’s midterm elections hits the home stretch, Republicans are casting Democrats as weak and ineffective safeguards against criminal conduct.

“Reducing Crime and protecting public safety” is a main plank of the Republicans’ policy blueprint if the party takes majority of the U.S. House of Representatives in the midterm elections. Unveiled by House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy last week, the blueprint, entitled “Commitment to America,” condemns “liberal prosecutors and district attorneys who fail to do their job and keep criminals off the street.”

In her successful campaign against two-term incumbent Chatham County DA and Republican Meg Daly Heap in 2020 — one marked by accusations of racism and anti-Semitism, radicalism and socialism — Jones made no apology for being a disrupter as she laid out an expansive vision of the criminal justice system, one that includes not only prosecution and incarceration but rehabilitation.

In her address on Sunday, sponsored by the Savannah chapter of the NAACP, she returned to those themes.

The criminal justice system was sick long before Covid, keeping neither U.S. citizens nor Chatham County citizens safe, she said.

The pandemic only served as the “proverbial match that lit the powder keg of all of society’s ills,” Jones said, calling attention to a justice system has been chronically overburdened and overwhelmed, mostly by cases involving drug sales, drug use, and other nonviolent felonies.

Listeners gathered in First African Baptist Church at a NAACP Savannah branch meeting to hear Chatham County’s District Attorney speak, including Sheriff John Wilcher (center left) on Sept. 25, 2022. Jeffery Glover/The Current

At the core of the ailing system is the penchant for incarcerating those who have committed such felonies instead of creating a pathway for these individuals to reenter society, become employable, and support and sustain their families.

The U.S. incarcerates more of its citizens than any nation in the world. Georgia imprisons more of its citizens than any other state, and as of June 2020, Chatham County had the highest number of people in prison, on probation, or in some other form of supervised release, Jones noted. And as of June 2020, it also had the highest recidivism rate of any county in the country.

If zealous prosecution of nonviolent felonies and mass incarceration were the answer, then the Chatham County citizens would feel safer and crime would be going down, Jones said.  

The answer, she said, is to “create more opportunities for people to segue and return back to the community and be restored and prove themselves to be contributing members of society.”

Although 46 people have been added to the district attorney’s staff in the 22 months since Jones took office, more attorneys, judges, and sheriff’s deputies are needed to prosecute those who are truly dangerous, Jones said.

Some 78% of the district attorney’s office budget is funded by the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, with the rest funded by the state. Jones also pointed out the county commissioners denied her recent request to fund employee positions and gave her temporary federal money instead.

“There is absolutely no way that you can run a criminal justice system, post-Covid, for the same sticker price that you did previously,” she said.

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...