Let’s check in with State Attorney Dennis Ward

When it comes to crime in the Florida Keys, the State’s Attorney General’s office is serious about prosecuting criminals.

Monroe County State’s Attorney Dennis Ward joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning about the goings on in his office.

With the Labor Day holiday weekend coming up, listeners are reminded to drive sober or get pulled over.

The office is still looking for staff.

“It’s a great career path to learn how to be a litigator,” Ward said. “Because nowhere else do you get an opportunity to stand before a jury in the beginning of your career and plead cases. Also you’re doing a good service for the community in keeping our community safe and making sure that people can feel secure when they come to the Florida Keys or people that live here feel secure. Protect our resources and everything we have. It’s a noble profession.”

Anyone interested in working with the State’s Attorney’s Office, click here: https://www.keyssao.org/

There are currently four attorneys in the Key West office and there are usually 10. The office is also short attorneys in Plantation Key and Marathon as well.

Ward said, “The bar results should be out here in the next couple of weeks and we’ll see if we can pick anybody up that can afford to live down here.”

It’s likely taxes in the Keys will also increase with the new budgets.

Ward said, “You know you look around and you talk to people from the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Children and Families and they’re struggling as well.”

Indeed, the Monroe County School District superintendent recently mentioned the need for teachers.

Ward said, “Maybe with their 18% tax increase, they’ll want to spend a lot of money towards trying to pay teachers an attractive salary. I think the school superintendent said that they figured that the cost of living comes to about $70,000 a year to live here in the Florida Keys, which is probably about right.”

The State’s Attorney’s office is projecting $85,000 as a starting pay for staff in order to be able to live in the Keys.

Ward said, “It’s not going to get any better, I don’t think because you look at the taxes they’re raising, they’re raising the taxes of people that provide rental space to workers out here and that’s just going to hammer them and they’ll reflect that in their rates.”

The State’s Attorney’s office sees domestic abuse cases.

Ward said, “I don’t know if it’s a result of the pandemic, people being cooped up for a couple years. We had a homicide in Marathon and one down in Stock Island. Very violent homicides. We’re just not used to that type of crime here in the Florida Keys, so when we get one like that, it’s kind of stunning for a little while. We certainly know how to handle them.”

Domestic violence and drug issues are the main reasons for homicides in the Keys.

Having so many cases on the docket and so few prosecutors can be a real stumbling block.

Ward said, “We try to work with the judges and the judges are well aware of what cases have been sitting around for a while. There’s a prioritization that was promulgated by the Florida Supreme Court to hear certain cases first and they have priority. Generally the people that are incarcerated, those cases come first and then we will go from there.”

Some people are in jail from cases that occurred even before the pandemic because it’s been difficult to get jurors into the court.

Ward said, “We send out a ton of jury summons and we don’t get a very good response to them. I don’t know if it’s because people are afraid of catching COVID or they’re just happy working from home and that interferes with their ability to work from home. I have no idea what it is. If we don’t have jurors, we can’t run the system.”

In terms of compelling jurors to come in, it’s a worry if a person is sitting on a jury who really doesn’t want to be there. How might that affect their handling of the case?

Lobster regular season is now in full swing. In terms of mini season, it looks like the number of charges have come down.

Ward said, “I think people are starting to get the message that they need to comply with the rules.”

Fentanyl is another serious issue in the Keys.

Ward said, “Now you’ve got rainbow colored fentanyl. That’s to attract kids to fentanyl. The people that we catch with anything like that, that’s pretty much automatic, serious prison time. I don’t care if you’ve ever been arrested before in your life. If you’ve got that stuff on you and you’ve got an amount you’re selling, be prepared to do some years in our prison system. There’s a risk in everything you do. If you want to take that risk and come down here and sell fentanyl, I guarantee you that we’re going to catch you and I can guarantee you’re going to prison.”