Primary winner takes all in Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney race


Above: Kelsey Guernsey, left, and Jared Hopkins, right, are both running on the Republican ticket for the chance to become Jackson County’s next prosecuting attorney. No Democrats have put their name on the ballot, meaning that the winner of the Republican race will likely be the next prosecutor.

Stories, photos by Julie Riddle

Jackson County Prosecutor Jerard Jarzynka will step down this year at the end of his term, with two Republicans vying for his seat in the August primary. No Democrats have put their name on the ballot for the election, meaning whoever wins the primary will likely go on to win the November election and become chief prosecutor.

Vying for the position are Kelsey Guernsey, 36, currently an assistant prosecutor for Jackson County, and Jared Hopkins, 44, a Jackson criminal defense attorney with experience as an assistant prosecutor. Following is information on both candidates to help voters choose which candidate would best represent their interests.

Meet Kelsey Guernsey

A Columbia Central alumna, Kelsey Guernsey has served as an assistant prosecutor for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office since 2014.

If elected, she will continue to appear in the courtroom prosecuting the most egregious sex crimes and other high-profile cases. She says she would scale back her current caseload to give due attention to other facets of a chief prosecuting attorney’s job, including implementing crime prevention programs and engaging with the public on criminal justice issues.

Sexual abuse of children, often at the hands of family members or trusted adults, happens appallingly often in Jackson County, said Guernsey. Specializing in criminal sexual conduct cases, she has about 40 child sex assault cases on her caseload at any given moment.

Children need a prosecutor who will believe them, fight for them, understand their vulnerability in the court system, and empower them to speak up and protect their bodies, Guernsey said.

If someone were to hurt her own son, “who would I want looking out for him?” she asked. “That’s who I try to be.”

For several years, she has appeared in classrooms in a local school district, speaking to young children about body safety, how to find a trusted adult, and other prevention messages. Becoming prosecutor would help her expand that program county-wide, she said.

The prosecutor’s office meets with police every two weeks to discuss cases and compare notes about key bad actors and criminal networks in the community. In their combined effort to combat shootings, illegal drug sales, and gang violence in Jackson County, Guernsey has noticed a trend of younger and younger juveniles drawn into illegal activity.

When a violent crimes task force, in conjunction with federal agencies, got leaders of a local violent gang off the streets, the gang filled the gaps by recruiting increasingly younger teens, Guernsey said.

She hopes, as prosecutor, to implement a juvenile gang diversion program with proven effectiveness in other parts of the country. The program would help city leaders identify youth at risk ― those with older siblings in jail or involved in gangs, for example ― and encourage them onto a different path.

Courts are also seeing more people in their early teens using and addicted to meth and heroin. Public safety demands a vigorous response to youth drug use. As prosecutor, Guernsey hopes to partner with a drug abuse reduction program already in Jackson middle and high schools and involve parents in combating teen addiction.

She will know she has succeeded as prosecutor by the numbers ― how many deals are made and cases go to trial, for example ― but, even more, by whether the community thinks she is protecting them, victims feel heard, and police think she has their backs, Guernsey said.

She’d like to help restart a mental health court in the county and make sure police officers get needed training, such as how to testify effectively and what prosecutors look for in police investigations to be able to levy charges.

With people from all over the state coming to Jackson to purchase illegal narcotics and local family groups cycling through the court system from one generation to the next, the prosecutor’s office has to be tough on the worst offenders.

“We make no deals on those cases,” Guernsey said. “We hold their feet to the fire as much as we can.”

That includes urging lengthy sentences and making sure judges know an offender’s potential to be dangerous, she said.

The county falls far short of the state’s recommended speed for processing criminal cases, according to state courts data. That slow pace preceded the slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some cases get stalled when defendants demand multiple new attorneys or when defense attorneys have to back out of a case because of a conflict of interest. A record number of jury trials last year helped clear out pandemic-related backlogs, and Guernsey anticipates courtrooms may move more quickly in future, but the prosecutor’s office may need to remind judges to push attorneys to come to court prepared to move a case along quickly for the sake of both defendants and victims, she said.

Also slowing some cases, defendants who can’t afford an attorney now have better representation, thanks to recent state-level efforts by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which instituted new guidelines and funded county-level offices like the Office of the Jackson County Public Defender, established in 2019.

The changes mean a more robust and fairer defense. They also mean prosecutors’ offices have to work harder on each case ― often with fewer attorneys handling more cases than public defender offices ― although the prosecution, unlike the defense, has the full weight of the police at its disposal.

Jarzynka’s successor will have to have the administrative prowess to bridge that gap, said Guernsey, who called herself up to the challenge of being pressed by a strong criminal defense team.

“Hold me accountable,” she said. “Make me prove my case to you. I’m here for that.”

Meet Jared Hopkins

Farmington Hills native Jared Hopkins hopes to leverage his experience working both sides of the courtroom to combat Jackson’s most dangerous crimes as prosecutor.

He worked as an assistant prosecutor at the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office from 2006 until 2013, when he created the Jackson criminal defense law office where he now practices.

Hopkins holds up his decade of defending people accused of crimes as a key to his qualification for the prosecutor seat. He said he understands the tools and tactics defense attorneys use, and can counteract them by preparing an airtight prosecution.

The most serious cases often should go all the way to trial, with no offer of a plea deal, but in many cases, a trial means a prosecutor has failed, Hopkins said. If a case is solid ― hard facts, convincing evidence, confident witnesses, documentation sound ― a defendant will realize he or she has no wiggle room and will admit to charges or take a plea offer, he said.

Strong cases that win in the courtroom can’t leave any room for a weakness that a defense attorney could exploit, such as an incomplete paper trail or weak search warrant. As prosecutor, he said he won’t hesitate to push police to give him unassailable proof of solid police work, he said.

“I’ll say, ‘This search warrant is crap. Go redo it,’” Hopkins said.

He believes his sometimes politically incorrect, direct manner endears him to police officers who want the straight story. Good relationships with police are key to a strong prosecution, and he believes he has built and can draw on those relationships.

As an assistant prosecutor, he met monthly with police leaders to identify people causing the most community problems. Those people, he said, should get no plea deals and need the maximum penalty when convicted. As prosecutor, he will press for stiff sentences and strong prosecution in such cases, he pledged.

Users who steal for drug money and mid-level dealers selling to feed their addiction need repercussions, but the prosecutor’s office needs to understand those people are not necessarily trying to be bad. Some criminals, however, choose criminality with intent, and those require a vigorous prosecution and the stiffest possible penalty.

“Violent criminals, big drug dealers, and guns,” he said. “Those are the three things that, I think, are tearing this city apart.”

Hopkins said he is not familiar with the city’s Group Violence Intervention initiative, which focuses preventive energies on groups and individuals most likely to trigger violence, but he questions the effectiveness of such prevention efforts on people determined to cause trouble.

“Soft intervention isn’t going to work with these people,” he said. “Because they don’t care.”

As a defense attorney, he has sat in cells with people whose only goal, he said, is to get out of jail, sell more drugs, and make more money. He has represented large-scale drug dealers with Detroit addresses who came to Jackson to sell, often using local women to provide vehicles and drug storage.

When such a person gets caught, “They go to prison for as long as I can put them there,” Hopkins said.

“They don’t care about this town. They don’t care about this county,” he said. “They care about where their next thousand dollars is coming from. And if they have to resort to violence, they’re going to do that, too. If they don’t care about this community, I don’t care about them.”

Should he reach the prosecutor seat, he intends to hire a chief assistant prosecutor who would handle administrative duties, freeing Hopkins to appear in the courtroom handing the most serious cases in the county. The public who elects the prosecutor should “see that lead figure fighting for them,” he said.

Jackson County’s circuit courtrooms lag behind the state average in moving criminal cases toward resolution, and that slow pace began before the COVID-19 pandemic complicated court proceedings, state court data shows.

Other case types in Jackson County typically meet state guidelines.

Hopkins suggested the prosecutor’s office could speed criminal cases by imposing charges that actually fit the alleged crime, rather than overcharging with the intent of later reducing charges as part of a plea deal, a practice common in many Michigan courts.

He said that “truth in charging” policy could backfire, however, if local attorneys expect and demand plea deals and won’t accept guilty pleas without them, he said.

Other possible strategies to speed up criminal cases include incentivizing guilty pleas by making sure defendants know what sentence a judge intends to impose, communicating clearly with victims to make sure they actually want to press charges, and authorizing assistant prosecuting attorneys to make plea offers on their own, without approval from the chief prosecutor, Hopkins suggested.

As prosecutor, if elected, Hopkins said he will know he is doing a good job if police and victims are pleased with his work.

“If those two groups are happy, that means the criminals are getting off the street,” he said.

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