Faith Could Make A Difference
DA Asks Churches to Join Initiative
An initiative launched by the Middle Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s office is designed to offer positive alternatives for young people headed toward careers in crime and prison; but the success of the effort is dependent on support from communities whose residents are willing to invest faith that they can make a difference.
“We all want the same thing—to live and raise our families in a safe community,” said District Attorney Tripp Fitzner. He believes the Community, Faith and Leadership Committees being started in the five counties his district serves, including Toombs, will be springboards for continued from page
positive changes through- out the district. Essentially, the program offers early intervention for people at risk of being seduced by drugs, gangs and violence. “We’ve got a gang and a violence problem, and my office approaches this problem from both the front end and the back end. The back end is when people commit violent crimes and go to prison.”
It is better for everyone if the problem is attacked at the front end, Fitzner advised. “The point is to get to people early and to change their minds and, hopefully, their hearts, too. I don’t think you have to sell that. I think every reasonable person would agree that is a good idea.” He added, “On the back end, we will have a zero tolerance policy for people who use guns to commit crimes in the name of gangs, or gang violence. I genuinely believe there is room for both (the front end and back end) principles without being contradictory.” Fitzner pointed out this initiative is so important he wanted to get it started in his first 30 days as the District’s new DA. He won his post in the November 3, 2020, election. “We are never ever going to make progress in the war against gangs in our community if we don’t reach out to everybody and if we don’t get everybody invested in the safety of our community. If law enforcement (and the judiciary) could solve this by ourselves, we would have already done it. Let’s work together to make the community safer.” Fitzner, who held an inaugural session for the new program at Harvest Time Church in Vidalia recently, is reaching out to faith-based organizations and churches for help in getting the project started. “We can find common ground if we don’t get hung up in the details,” he said, noting, “We can course correct, but let’s get started.” It is Fitzner’s goal to hold open forums in different areas of the Middle Circuit three or four times a year and to hear directly from community residents on what they want to incorporate into the initiative.”We are not focused on any particular demographic. We are bringing people in the faith community together to start having a conversation about how we can make the communities safer and better.”
He is looking toward investment from faithbased organizations for a good reason. “People in the church are not just talkers, they are doers. They are the ones who can effectuate the most change by the nature of what they do. I didn’t want this to be something where we talked and nothing ever came of it.”
Fitzner described the effort as a kind of hybrid, pretrial diversion concept that has been rebranded. “We wanted to reach (offenders) before they had significant criminal records and to get them involved with faith-based organizations,” he said, noting that candidates would need to agree to enter the alternative to incarceration program voluntarily. The hybrid program would offer the structure of the judicial system which involves courts, random drug tests, certain legal requirements and restrictions, and adds an extra layer with a faith-based component. “This program is not designed to be easy. If they don’t want to change I don’t want them in this program. We want people who want to make an improvement,” Fitzner advised.
“And we can’t do it if the faith-based community doesn’t buy into this,” he added. “I will also say the more who are interested, the more we can help.”
The criteria for a candidate’s admission into the program is posted on the Middle Georgia DA Office’s website (middleda. org). Also on the web site are documents necessary for churches and organizations whose memberships want to apply for inclusion in the project. Additionally, Fitzner’s office will be available to answer questions.
“I wanted to be transparent,” Fitzner said. He noted that candidates who are recommended for the program will be screened very carefully. These offenders cannot have prior felony or substantial misdemeanor records. “These will be lower level offenders.”
Fitzner said criteria for candidate for inclusion also includes that candidates not be serving a sentence and have no major drug or alcohol dependence. He said that he has reached out to the Toombs County Prevention, Treatment and Recovery Initiative for advice on substance abuse disorder services if they are needed in meeting the needs of candidates. “We recognize that substance abuse requires professional intervention. We are looking for people who offer services in the community because we want to take advantage of multiple resources in the communities we serve,” Fitzner said.
Offenders will be required to attend courtappointed appearances, to be drug tested randomly, be employed, or seek employment. They will also be required to commit to a minimum of 120 hours to the program over a period of approximately 12 months. If the candidates fulfill all of the requirements of the program, their cases will be dismissed, Fitzner said.
What sets this program apart is that it will be guided and perfected by the faith-based community. Candidates will be doing volunteer work for the church, a community food bank, or anything that directly affects their spiritual growth and improves conditions in the community, Fitzner said. He believes what people of faith can bring to the table is critical. “I have never seen the criminal justice system save anyone’s soul.”
How the program will evolve over time remains to be determined. “We want to wait and see what the details will look like because it’s a new initiative and different organizations will have different ideas. We intentionally left the (parameters) broad because each organization will have its own unique outreach. If we need to make adjustments down the road, we will make changes.” He cautioned that the program cannot support political applications or activities intended for individual gain.
Reinforcing that he wanted to approach the problems many communities are experiencing from a different angle, Fitzner said, “I see the value in bringing together people who are united in purpose.”
In addition to Toombs County, the District also serves Candler, Emanuel, Jefferson and Washington counties.