Suzanne Goddard has been named Muscogee's Solicitor General, the leading prosecutor in the state court, comparable to the district attorney in superior court.
She replaces Ben Richardson, who left the position to become a state court judge.
State court handles all misdemeanor cases forwarded it after defendants have their initial hearings in either Columbus Recorder's Court or Muscogee Municipal Court. Such cases often involve petty theft, marijuana possession, driving under the influence, simple assault or battery with family violence.
Goddard, 57, has been with the office 16 years, serving the past 10 as chief solicitor general, the second in command. She has been interim solicitor general since Richardson became a judge Dec. 9. Richardson, 47, had been solicitor general since 2003 and worked in the office since 1994.
Never miss a local story.
The office includes six other attorneys and 12 support staff.
Those who regularly work with Goddard praised the appointment by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
"As a practical matter, the solicitor general must not only be a well-qualified attorney, but he or she must also be an accomplished administrator and at times lobbyist. It is not a job suited in any way for on-the-job training," Muscogee State Court Judge Andy Prather wrote in an email. "The appointment of an inexperienced attorney or one lacking Suzanne’s work ethic would have come at significant cost to the legal system."
Said Sam Thrower, the chief public defender in state court:
"She to me is the most reasonable and the most willing to listen to the facts of any prosecutor that I know. As defense attorneys, we’re always talking to prosecutors who make a lot of assumptions based on a police report. There’s more to it than that, and Suzanne takes the time to get to the bottom of it, to figure it out."
Thrower said he particularly is impressed with how Goddard handles mental health court, which is designed to divert from the criminal justice system those who need treatment for their illness.
"I sit through mental health court every time it is held, and it requires a person with not only a great knowledge of criminal procedure, but somebody who’s got a side that’s truly sensitive to the issues that people who are burdened by mental health problems face. I’ve never seen anybody who could handle it like Suzanne could."
Goddard recognized the difference mental health court can make, as those who get treatment may lead fulfilling lives without another criminal offense. Those who do not may be jailed repeatedly, essentially condemned because they are sick, Thrower said.
"It’s the most vicious cycle in the world, and we’re to blame in part for in the past not having the sensitivity that’s required to determine who’s ill and who isn’t," he added. "There’s no need to pack the jails full of people who are truly burdened by mental-health issues. An alternative way is what everybody’s going to have to come to adopt, and Suzanne recognized this early on."
Usually the mentally ill first run afoul of the law for some petty offense, so state court is the first opportunity to evaluate them.
Goddard said mental health court is now about 10 years old in Muscogee County. Many of its cases arise out of family disputes, she said: "I feel like the majority are family violence, because you've got grown children still living at home, who are mentally ill and have serious problems, and there's not a place for them to go."
Mental health workers review such cases to determine whether treatment is more appropriate for the defendants than incarceration. The progress of those who go into a treatment program is monitored closely to ensure they remain on track.
And it works.
"It has an 85 percent or more success rate," Goddard said. "It reduces the rate of recidivism, with a better quality of life for the defendants and their families, and it's favorable for the community."