Now that early voting is officially underway for the next election in Georgia, one of the biggest political races coming up on the ballot, locally, will be decided between two candidates running for district attorney of the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit.

The only two candidates in the June 9 election for district attorney are T. Wright Barksdale and Carl Cansino.

Both candidates are running on the Republican ballot, meaning that the winner will become the new district attorney of the eight-county judicial circuit.

Barksdale, an assistant district attorney with the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office, who prosecutes criminal cases in Putnam and Hancock counties, and Cansino, a well-known criminal defense trial lawyer in Milledgeville, participated in a virtual political forum last Thursday night. The event, which lasted a little more than an hour, was live-streamed and was sponsored by The Jones County News and the Gray-Jones County Chamber of Commerce. Debbie Lurie-Smith, editor of the newspaper, asked Barksdale and Cansino questions related to the district attorney’s office, as well as from those who sent in questions for the candidates.

During candidate introductions, Barksdale pointed out that he is a lifelong resident of Middle Georgia and that he and his wife, Katie, grew up in Washington County, and that they live in Gray where they are raising their three children.

Barksdale said the late Fred Bright, who served as the longtime district attorney of the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, gave him the opportunity to come back home to “God’s Country” when he hired him in 2013.

“I absolutely love my job and love being from this area serving great people from our communities,” Barksdale said from the conference room of the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office in Eatonton.

Cansino, meanwhile, said back in 1998 he moved to Milledgeville to become an assistant district attorney under Bright.

“My family and I have called Baldwin County home since 1998,” Cansino said. “Baldwin County is part of the Ocmulgee Circuit. I came to the circuit for a job opportunity and it happened to be that that opportunity was with the district attorney’s office. I also was hired by Fred Bright to be an assistant D.A.”

Cansino said he has practiced law since 1996.

“That is actuality almost half of my life as a lawyer,” Cansino said. “I believe I have the experience to become Ocmulgee’s next district attorney being a criminal defense lawyer, business manager, law partner, and a former prosecutor, I feel that I am qualified to be and lead the next district attorney’s office.”

The first question was posed to Cansino concerning Accountability Courts and their success rate within the circuit.

“Well, I can speak to that from experience,” Cansino said. “I’ve had clients of mine who have had trouble with drugs and have been through the system — the normal legal justice system that we used to have prior to the Accountability Courts and there’s nothing like seeing one of your clients graduate successfully from that rigorous program.”

 Cansino said former Gov. Nathan Deal made it one of his goals during his administration to reform the criminal justice system and expand the role of Accountability Courts.

“It’s just amazing, and it almost brings tears to your eyes and does bring tears to your eyes when you see a graduate from drug court who has gone from what they feel is rock bottom to being a solid, productive citizen, and a most valuable member of our society,” Cansino said. 

He said he hopes Accountability Courts can be expanded to each of the counties within the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit.

Barksdale responded to the same question.

“As hopefully this circuit’s next district attorney, I’m going to follow the law, and I’m going to seek justice,” Barksdale said. “And sometimes that means trying to help people that come before the court.”

He said he believes Accountability Courts are a tool for prosecutors and judges to help people when they can.

“But I do not believe that Accountability Courts should be used for people with multiple felony convictions,” Barksdale said. “I firmly believe that those individuals need to be in prisons — not in Accountability Courts if it has been proven that they are a threat to our community.”

He said if it had been proven that they simply can’t do right, then they should be removed from the communities.

Another question asked of the candidates referenced that some district attorneys see themselves as chief prosecutors, while others see themselves more in an administrative role. The candidates were asked how they see themselves in the role of district attorney.

Barksdale said, “I think you know that I’m a prosecutor’s prosecutor.”

 He said he loves his job and what he does.

“I say that to say this,” Barksdale said. “I want to be very involved in the prosecution of criminals and sometimes that’s going to be making sure my people have what they need to be successful. I personally think that I’m going to be trying somewhere in the neighborhood of five to six major felony cases a year.”

Barksdale said he wanted to make sure that the worst offenders were sentenced to the most time in prison.

“It’s impossible to choose one or the other because the chief prosecutor’s role is both,” Cansino said. “We have such a large judicial circuit that a lot of the times, the D.A. becomes manager to some good people but that is not something that is a bad thing, either. If the D.A. is a good trainer, a person who hires good people and has good management skills and does not micromanage, and makes sure he has a good staff, investigators, then he can concentrate and I can concentrate, if I become the next D.A., on larger cases that need my attention. And I can trust the individuals who are the assistant D.A.s to handle everything in the judicial circuit. So, it’s impossible to just be a prosecutor or just be a manager. You've got to be able to balance both.”

Another question asked of the candidates concerned what district attorneys can do to assist counties in dealing with repeat offenders who have mental health issues.

“Nowhere is that more prevalent than in Baldwin County,” Cansino said.

He explained that some of the issues were due to in part to the closing of Central State Hospital several years ago.

“It seems like overnight, the doors of Central State opened and the people became competent,” said Cansino from his law office in downtown Milledgeville. “What the D.A.’s office can do, and should do, is partner with the community. Obviously, these people live in the community. We have in our community — especially in our circuit — community service boards that can serve as treatment facilities for those with mental health issues and addictive diseases, places like River Edge and the Oconee Center. These places can establish housing-treatment. And instead of the county jails being the hotel and revolving door for these individuals, we can get them onto a more productive and supervised life.”

Barksdale responded.

 He said as a prosecutor that he had challenged the mental health agencies.

“They evaluate offenders to see if they are competent,” Barksdale said. “Some of these people they say are competent are clearly not competent and at the end of the day, the judge has to make that determination. We have been subpoenaing these doctors, putting them in the box and asking them questions on point and when the judge asks them questions and then when the judge determines whether they are going to be released back to the county jail or if they are going to stand trial or if they are going to go back to one of the treatment facilities.”

Barksdale said mental health issues have an impact on communities within the circuit.

“We’re going to do everything we can to protect our loved ones,” Barksdale said.

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