Restoring trust, targeting violent crimes among state attorney’s top priorities


Restoring trust, targeting violent crime and using alternatives to incarceration where appropriate are among Melissa Nelson’s top priorities, the new state attorney said last week.

The state attorney for the 4th Circuit covering Clay, Nassau and Duval counties, Nelson told members of the Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach that since taking office in January, she has increased the number of prosecutors assigned to violent crime cases from one to four and embedded them with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to foster better collaboration and improve intelligence gathering.

“Duval County is suffering a violent crime epidemic,” Nelson said. “In order to solve crimes, we have to have intelligence – and in order to get that intelligence, people have to trust us and tell us what’s going on.”

Rebuilding that trust, she continued, begins by ensuring that the criminal justice system is perceived as being fair.

“All of us share values – we want to live in safe neighborhoods, in safe communities and we also want to know that the justice system is fair,” Nelson said. “It’s important to me that when people come to the courthouse – no matter the outcome – that they leave believing the system is fair.”

To that end, Nelson is drawing on the 12 years she spent as an assistant state attorney as well as the seven years she spent in private practice prior to becoming state attorney.

“I appreciate and understand the craft of investigating cases and trying a case in front of a jury,” she said. “At the same time, having been on the opposite side of the government and the power of the government, I believe, has already informed my decisions.

“My father spent his entire career in law enforcement,” she continued. “And when I graduated from law school, he told me to never, ever lose sight of the incredible, awesome power that comes with the ability to take away someone’s liberty.”

To that end, Nelson has also increased use of the state’s alternatives to incarceration, including intervention and diversion of some cases to veteran’s court, drug court and mental health court. She is also working with the three counties in her jurisdiction to issue juvenile offenders civil citations where appropriate – a process that involves youth offenders appearing before a neighborhood accountability review board, which can implement more customized, thoughtful approaches to justice and public safety.

“We cannot solve the criminal problems by just putting people in jail,” Nelson said. “We are not experiencing better public safety outcomes (from that). So, in everything we do, we ask, ‘Will it make us safer?’”