It takes cooperation by residents, police, prosecutors and courts to reduce crime, according to Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joan Ziglar.
However, she thinks her office’s aggressive prosecution efforts have played an active role in bringing Martinsville’s crime rate to a 30-year low, based on statistics presented by former police chief Mike Rogers earlier this year.
The drop in crime bucks a nationwide trend, especially in communities with high unemployment, Ziglar said.
She has no plans to change any of her office’s procedures or prosecution strategies if she is elected to a fifth four-year term on Tuesday, she said.
Ziglar, 52, recalled that when she first was elected in 1997, she vowed to “take on tough cases and prosecute them vigorously,” such as by reducing plea bargains and working to increase average sentences for major crimes.
There are sentencing guidelines that take the nature of a crime and a defendant’s criminal history, or lack thereof, into account, she noted.
But “the law says justice is supposed to be blind, based not on who the person is but what they have done,” Ziglar said.
Factors such as a person’s age, race or socioeconomic status must not be taken into account in sentencing, she said.
Jury trials are an effective way of prosecuting suspects in serious crimes, according to Ziglar.
If re-elected, “I will continue pushing drug distribution cases ... for jury trials,” she said.
The public, through juries, should be involved in sentencing offenders in such cases due to the impact that their crimes have on the community, Ziglar said.
Locally, most crimes involve drugs, she said, even if it is indirectly, such as a drug user breaking into a home to try to find drugs or money to buy drugs.
Using juries to handle such cases allows people to see how prevalent crime is, and in the sentences they recommend, “it gives me guidance” as to how the community wants her to deal with crime, Ziglar said.
Yet it is judges — not prosecutors or juries — who ultimately sentence criminals, she emphasized.
Ziglar said she uses plea bargains occasionally when she believes they are appropriate. A plea bargain is when a defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge and a prosecutor drops a more serious charge against him.
For example, Ziglar recalled a recent case in which a man who had severe back injuries was caught with pain pills he had purchased illegally. Because he had no health insurance, doctors refused to treat him, so he could not get a prescription for pain medicine. She said she took his situation into account when prosecuting him.
Plea bargains, Ziglar said, also are worthwhile sometimes due to problems that arise in prosecuting a case, such as when witnesses do not cooperate with prosecutors, which could result in a a guilty defendant going free.
But “I’m not gonna just do it randomly,” she said of using plea bargains. She recalled having frequently heard people complain that her predecessor, Randy Smith, used plea agreements too often.
Ziglar said she supports alternative sentencing programs and has taken part in establishing some local programs, including ones for first-time offenders who have shoplifted or driven while their license was suspended.
She noted that state law provides a program that enables people charged with drug possession for the first time to have their charges dismissed.
Yet in some types of cases, such as drug dealing, incarceration might be better for a defendant, she thinks.
“I have had more than a few drug dealers come to me (after being released from incarceration) and say, ‘Ms. Ziglar, you saved my life’” by putting them behind bars, she said.
While incarcerated, drug offenders get “dried out” and receive medical treatments and counseling that they otherwise might not be able to get, she said.
If they are behind bars long enough, she said, “they have an opportunity to walk away” from dealing and using drugs because it takes them away from others involved with drugs.
“If you keep putting them out on the street and don’t do anything to try to help them,” they tend to continue using and selling drugs, Ziglar said.
To illustrate her point, she recalled an instance in which a local drug dealer who was allowed to serve his sentence at home sold drugs from there as he was being electronically monitored.
Ziglar noted that her phone number is published in the local directory and “believe me, people use it” to give her their opinions on criminal justice matters. She is receptive to such calls, as long as the callers are polite, she said.
Ethically, she cannot take calls from people being prosecuted before their trials are over, she emphasized.
If some people think she has been too tough on criminals, Ziglar does not apologize.
“This election,” she observed, “basically is a request to the public by (challenger) Clay Gravely that they fire me and hire him.”
“I have done nothing to be fired over,” Ziglar said. Recalling that “crime was soaring” before she took office, she said, “I’ve done my job” by helping reduce crime in Martinsville.
Joan Ziglar biography
Name: Joan Ziglar
Occupation: Martinsville commonwealth’s attorney since 1998. She is running for a fifth four-year term.
Previous career experience: Administered housing grants for the city of Martinsville; probation and parole officer for Martinsville-Henry County; assistant public defender in the city; special counsel to the state attorney general
Education: Law degree from The College of William and Mary Law School; master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University; bachelor’s degree from Ferrum College
Family: Married. She declined to publicly identify her husband out of concern for his privacy.
Civic activities: None currently. She withdrew from all previous activities when she first was elected commonwealth’s attorney to avoid potential conflicts of interest.