HAZARD – Teresa Reed captured her first elected office in the 2006 election, and by the end of this year will wrap up her first term as commonwealth’s attorney, an office to which she also hopes to gain re-election this year.
A graduate of Hazard High School, Reed went on to attend Berea College and also earned a master’s degree from the University of Dayton. She earned her law degree from the University of Kentucky before moving back to her native Perry County.
Reed’s professional background includes stints as a federal prosecutor as well as work in the local public defender’s office before winning a term as commonwealth’s attorney. She said during an interview this week that her job is to obtain convictions, and described her first term as “successful” in that a lot of people who committed serious crimes have been successfully prosecuted and sentenced to prison time. But she noted that she has also worked to include alternative sentences such as probation and drug court in certain cases to help address the local drug problem.
Reed estimated that 95 percent of the felony cases that make their way through the judicial system in Perry County are in some way drug related, either directly through possession or trafficking, or indirectly through thefts or forgeries where defendants have stolen money or items to trade for prescription drugs. It’s a problem, she added, that authorities will not be able to incarcerate their way out of, which makes those alternative sentences even more important.
“We try to combine those (sentences) to try to help people who have addiction problems,” she said. “We try to give them an opportunity so that if they want to try to change, to take advantage of the opportunity, then they can.”
Unfortunately, she added, this method doesn’t work for everyone, and many defendants are eventually sentenced to serve prison time anyway.
Attempting probation in certain cases, which includes conditions such as random drug testing or treatment, does sometimes work, she noted. But as the state government continues to face ongoing budget woes, the funding for treatment has decreased, while some convicted felons are being released early to reduce the cost of housing them.
“One thing is out of my control, and that is that the state is going broke, so they’re letting people out so fast,” she said.
Mandated drug treatment for defendants is something Reed said that everyone from state officials to the parents of the defendants all agree is needed, but the money is not there to ensure that everyone is receiving some sort of treatment. The alternative is that more people will be imprisoned, but Reed noted that is not going to solve the overall problem.
One thing that does seem to work is a team approach, and that includes working with the circuit judge, defense attorney, pretrial services and probation officers to attempt to figure out the best approach to take in each case in order to facilitate someone’s decision to kick their drug habit.
“We can’t make someone get off of drugs,” she said. “A person has to decide that for themselves.”
One of the toughest aspects of her job, Reed said, involves the worst crimes. There has been only one murder case for which Reed has sought the death penalty so far. In general, she added, there is a benchmark for cases which she would seek the death penalty again, namely the nature of the murder and that the case meets the legal criteria. And while this does not happen often, she noted that seeking the death penalty was the toughest decision she has made since taking office.
“It should be a very serious and very weighty decision,” she said. “It’s not something that you do just on a whim.”
While Reed has tried several cases, the vast majority of them end with a plea agreement rather than a jury trial. She said this is sometimes by design, because in most cases her office will make the initial offer for a guilty plea.
“I always think that the defendant should be given the chance, that if they want to plead guilty that they should be able to,” she said.
But in any case that concludes with a sentence of probation, Reed noted that she always seeks community service as a condition so that the defendant who committed a crime in that community can in some way work to pay back for that crime.
“I feel like the least that can do is pay back the community by doing community service,” Reed continued.
Ultimately, Reed noted that she works to be fair to each defendant going through the system no matter their socioeconomic situation, to balance the needs of the community and the victims in each case. And it’s the needs of the community that as an elected officer she said she works to address.
“My whole philosophy is — with any elected office — is that we serve the people,” she said. “We try to make our actions so that our community is a better place, and that’s what we work toward doing. We try to hold people accountable, but at the same time we try to help them make better decisions.”
Reed is running for the Democratic primary against Chris Paul, who currently serves as the assistant county attorney in Perry County.