After taking office in January 2017, Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes hit the ground running.
In his first year, Hughes implemented changes to improve the functionality of the DA office and expanded some programs, like the pretrial diversion program, while creating some new ones. He shook up the staff almost immediately, letting four members go to make room for new people, and with funding from a local rotary club, he even added one four-legged staff member, Chunk, the DA office's emotional support dog.
"If a dog walked in right now, I think everybody would light up," Hughes said to a group at the Auburn Chamber of Commerce this week. "That's what Chunk does. If we have someone who has to come before the Grand Jury or just talk about their case or an adult victim who's got their children with them, we can just let them hang out with Chunk."
Hughes said the first thing he concentrated on after assuming his new role was catching up on cases, many which were years old, sitting stagnant.
The office went from presenting 200 cases each week to presenting 400-500 on Monday through Wednesday alone until staff was caught up.
"In all intents and purposes, we're caught up," he said. "We don't have a case older than 2017. We're rocking and rolling."
He said the office's goal will be to present 375-400 cases each week in an effort to not get overwhelmed again.
Hughes also streamlined the functionality of the office's case management system by implementing a computerized program.
"Before then, it was all paper," he said. "If I wanted to find a file, you couldn't find it. There was no system."
In his first year, Hughes also had the idea to expand Lee County's pretrial diversion program. The program previously only applied to people charged with a misdemeanor, but Hughes expanded it to allow first-time offenders charged with a nonviolent felony, excluding burglaries, which the Lee County DA's Office considers a violent crime, to seek pretrial diversion.
The diversion program allows people to work for a "do-over."
"If you do what the program asks of you, your case gets dismissed," Hughes said, adding that he believes giving some people the chance to work off an err in their judgment allows them better opportunities in the future and keeps them from repeating their mistakes. Currently, a couple hundred people are involved in the program, Hughes said.
A couple of new initiatives Hughes has been working on launched this week, including the Drug Information Training for Education Professionals — a two-day training program that teaches educators how to recognize impaired students and help them.
"This is not an enforcement action," Hughes said. "It's about intervention, pulling (students) aside and having that conversation."
Another initiative will allow victims, as well as any interested community member, to track the custody and release status of offenders. It's a free app called VINE, or Victim Information Notification Everyday. The DA's Office teamed up with the Lee County Sheriff's Office to provide the service to the county, and it went online Monday.
For more information on Hughes or the Lee County DA's Office, visit www.leecountyda.org.