The race for State Attorney, or top prosecutor, of the 16th Judicial Circuit includes two challengers — Democrat Donald Barrett and Republican Mark Kohl — facing incumbent Republican Dennis Ward.
All three candidates are familiar with each other and the state attorney’s office. Kohl and Ward have both served as state attorney and have campaigned against each other in recent history. Barrett has served as chief assistant state attorney.
There’s no love lost between Ward and Kohl, who will go head to head in the August Republican primary. That winner will face Barrett in the November general election.
The state attorney’s salary for the 16th Circuit is $169,554, as set by the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.
Keys Weekly asked all three candidates to answer
the same four questions:
1. If elected, what’s the top priority for your first 30 to 60 days in office?
2. With regard to fishing and wildlife violations, what is your position on the policy of seeking jail terms for suspects found with more than two undersized lobster or other illegal catches?
3. What types of crimes should be prosecuted more often in Monroe County? What crimes should be prosecuted less often?
4. Some law enforcement officials nationwide have said the U.S. cannot continue trying to arrest its way out of the deadly opiate and heroin epidemic. Given the increasing number of opiate and heroin overdoses, arrests and deaths in Monroe County, and the shortage of residential drug treatment programs in the county, how would your office address the epidemic locally with regard to prosecution, prison sentences and/or rehabilitation programs?
Donald C. Barrett
Education: Stetson University College of Law, J.D. / Georgia State University, B.A. Current city of residence: Key West
Professional background: State Attorney’s Office • 10 years, former chief assistant state attorney / Private practice of Law • 12 years, solo criminal defense practice / Judicial law clerk: 2 years
Political party: Democrat
Current job: Donald C. Barrett, P.A. (self-employed, solo law practice)
1. If elected, I would immediately provide the leadership, vision and oversight that has been missing at the State Attorney’s Office. I would personally assist the assistant state attorneys with their cases, working shoulder to shoulder, and I would investigate the need for a conviction integrity unit to review convictions obtained by the current State Attorney that may be called into question. I would also place the right people in the right positions to make certain (1.) that the work of the office is completed most effectively and efficiently, and (2.) that the newer employees receive proper legal training and guidance.
2. While it is critical that we preserve our natural resources, the current policy of seeking jail time for all such offenders is misguided and ineffective. Whereas a jail sentence may be appropriate in some cases (large illegal catch, repeat offenders, protected species, etc.), education and more proportional punishment are appropriate in other cases (first-time offenders, catch returned alive, unlikely to reoffend, etc.). In many instances where the State Attorney’s Office reflexively seeks jail time in these cases, the judges do not impose it – which demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the current policy. Blanket policies, of any type, typically don’t do justice.
3. The current administration has shown a lack of zeal in prosecuting domestic violence cases. The current state attorney is too quick to dismiss domestic violence cases when the victim recants or is otherwise uncooperative. There are ways to successfully prosecute such cases under these circumstances – I have done it, and my office will aggressively prosecute such cases within the bounds of the law. My office will focus our resources on violent crimes, crimes against persons and career criminals. With other petty offenses, which often stem from mental illness or substance abuse issues, the focus will be on education and rehabilitation.
4. It is important to differentiate between a drug addict and a drug dealer. An addict – who is typically only harming themselves – should be provided ample opportunities at rehabilitation. Addicts may be our loved ones, friends or neighbors. They need our help and compassion, not incarceration. However, in cases where people are selling dangerous drugs – particularly fentanyl, which can be deadly – successful prosecution will often lead to a prison term. Elsewhere in Florida, people have been prosecuted for murder for providing drugs that caused a fatal overdose. Prevention efforts should also be made to educate people on the dangers of such drugs.
Mark E. Kohl
Education: B.A. in political science from The Citadel in 1977 / Juris Doctorate from Nova Southeastern in 1984
Current city of residence: Islamorada
Professional background: 8 years as State Attorney in Monroe County • 4 years as executive director of State Attorney’s Office in Monroe County • 9 years as Assistant State Attorney in Monroe County • 4 years as Assistant State Attorney in West Palm Beach • 10 Years as criminal defense attorney in Monroe and Palm Beach counties • 4 years on Judicial Nominating Commission for Monroe County • 2½ years on Florida Medical Examiner’s Commission • 4 years on Florida Criminal & Juvenile Justice Information Systems Council
Political party: Republican
Current job: Retired
1. Meet with each assistant state attorney individually and make sure they are willing to follow the ethics rules required by The Florida Bar and myself. Require each assistant state attorney to complete The Florida Bar Continuing Legal Ethics course for prosecutors.
2. Every case is different and needs to be handled with common sense. I find it impossible to believe that it is more important to ask for jail time on a first offender with two barely short lobsters, but not ask for jail time on domestic battery or other violent offenses. The objective of our criminal justice system is to convince people to obey the laws. The majority of first-time offenders will be cured of their illegal behavior with probation, fines and community service. Repeat offenders and major offenders should be punished more harshly with jail time.
3. All crimes created by the legislature should be prosecuted. It is the job of the State Attorney to enforce the laws created by the legislature. The State Attorney should not second-guess the legislature and decide which laws they will not enforce. That being said, repeat offenders should be pursued more aggressively. A large number of offenses are committed by a small number of people. It is those repeat offenders who need to be more aggressively pursued. About 25 years ago the legislature recognized this and created the habitual offender laws that have resulted in a crime rate that has gone down continuously since those habitual offender laws were enacted.
4. The unfortunate truth is that many of the offenders do not want help. It is not until they reach rock bottom that they are even willing to consider changing their destructive habits. The use of pre-trial intervention programs and drug courts has been fairly successful because of the threat of incarceration. Pushing these offenders into those programs will help many of those people.
Dennis W. Ward
Education: Undergrad: Barry University, Miami, Florida; Juris Doctor: St. Thomas School of Law, Miami Gardens, Florida
Current city of residence: Islamorada
Professional background: United States Marine Corp, Vietnam veteran • Retired law enforcement officer • Assistant State Attorney • Assistant Public Defender 2008-2012 • State Attorney for the 16th Judicial Circuit, Florida • Instructor Law Enforcement Academy • Owner Operator of the Law Office of Dennis W. Ward
Political party: Republican
Current job: State Attorney for the 16th Judicial Circuit, Florida
1. During this term, my office spent considerable assets to create an unprecedented upgrade to all of our technology, including in the courtroom to utilize video and digital media, outside the courtroom to upgrade the servers, systems and hardware (including laptops) for the users. This allowed all our employees to work safely remotely during the COVID-16 pandemic, and during other situations that might arise in the future. With this new infrastructure, we anticipate moving to a largely paperless system in the first days of the 2021-2024 term, which will greatly increase the office efficiency, reduce cost and become environmentally friendly.
2. I agree with the policy 100%. Our natural resources are a very valuable commodity. The commercial fishing industry alone generates $900 million into our communities. This industry also supports 1,600 families. Charter boats and backcountry guides generate millions more.
Bag and size limits are so very important to the preservation of fish, lobster and stone crab. Look what happened to the conch, which used to be prevalent in Florida, but decades of over harvesting nearly wiped them out. Harvesting was outlawed in the ‘80s — they still have not recovered. Enforce the bag and size limits now.
3. The concern is not which crimes should be prosecuted more often or less often. When there is evidence a crime was committed, the culpable party should be prosecuted. Here, the concern is the penalty that serves the ends of justice for the victims and the safety of the public. I will continue to seek harsh penalties for all crimes of violence, sexual assault against adults and minors, marine and wildlife violations, illegal contracting and crimes committed during a state of emergency.
4. My office continues to prefer drug rehabilitation programs over incarceration for most opiate cases involving illegal possession of user-level amounts. For those who are guilty of selling these deadly drugs, I continue to believe incarceration is the appropriate sanction.