Two incredibly powerful prosecutors, sworn enemies, live in the same small Southern capital of Jackson, Mississippi—a state which has a larger Black population by proportion than any other (at over 37 percent), but which also backed Donald Trump (with almost 58 percent of the vote) in the 2016 presidential election. Mississippi is currently the third-most incarcerated state in the nation.

    One of the warring prosecutors, Mississippi’s Attorney General Jim Hood (below), is a white man who thinks that the Confederacy-homage of the state flag is embarrassing, but that executing prisoners by firing squad is not.

    Photo via Wikimedia commons

    The other, District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith of Hinds County (which includes Jackson), has been unsuccessfully prosecuted three times—by Hood—for alleged crimes related to helping a man evade prosecution for abusing his ex-wife. Smith (below), a Black man who also has a bad record on incarceration, compared these repeated prosecutions from AG Hood to a “modern day lynching.”  

    Photo via Hinds County DA Office

    It is a bold claim, to be sure. Yet callously destroying Black lives is something of which Hood has been culpable. For example, in 2017 he obtained a sentence of 30 years in prison for Christopher Butler—the same man Hood accused DA Smith of trying to illegally assist—on a single count of marijuana possession.

    Now, Hood and Smith are set to face off in a Democratic primary for Mississippi governor to be held in August.

    Underneath the headlines generated by this contest, however, there’s another story brewing.

    Having thrown his hat into the ring for governor, DA Smith can no longer run for reelection to his current office under state law; March 1 was the filing deadline for the 2019 Hinds County district attorney race.

    That means a real criminal justice reformer—comparable to Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner or Suffolk County, Massachusetts DA Rachel Rollinscould potentially become the next Jackson DA without having to go up against Smith, who is surprisingly popular on his home turf. And there are signs that such a scenario—one with implications well beyond Hinds County—is plausible.

    Like many other DAs who took office in the 2000s, Smith grew somewhat more humane with the times. In 2012, he was responsible for the prison admissions of 756 people, but that figure shrank to 281 people in 2018.

    Is change possible? If the right person comes along, Jackson seems ripe for it.

    But Smith is no paragon of decarceration either. Data from the National Corrections Reporting Program show that, in 2014, 14.5 people out of every 10,000 Hinds County residents were sent to prison. That means DA Smith was still locking up more people per capita than, for example, two other moderate Black male Democrat DAs in the Deep South: Dan Johnson, the former solicitor of Richland County, South Carolina, and Michael Jackson, the district attorney of Dallas County (Selma), Alabama.

    Is change possible? If the right person comes along, Jackson seems ripe for it. One candidate for that role is Jody Owens (below), managing attorney of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi office, who announced March 1 that he would run for Hinds County district attorney as a Democrat. He has spent the last decade litigating cases against private prisons, while advocating for criminal justice reform in the legislative arena.

    Photo via SPLC

    Other candidates in the Hinds County race include Darla Palmer, who is prioritizing police-community relations and speedier trials, and Stanley Alexander, a more conservative Democrat who ran and lost on traditional “law-and-order” lines in 2015.

    One sign that Jackson might be fertile ground for a candidate like Owens is that the city recently elected one of the most progressive mayors in America, Chokwe Antar Lumumba. After winning the June 2017 general election in a landslide, Mayor Lumumba said he wants Jackson to be the “most radical city on the planet.” A former criminal defense attorney, Mayor Lumumba has expressed keen interest in treating gun violence like a public health issue, and reining in police excesses like frequent high-speed chases.

    If a pro-reform DA were to win in Hinds County, that would represent a first step in wresting power from the regressive Mississippi Prosecutors Association.

    Another possible good omen for Owens is that District Attorney Scott Colom of Mississippi’s Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and Noxubee counties, became, back in 2015, one of the first DAs to win on a reform platform at least partly due to financial backing by billionaire George Soros.

    Colom, a Black Democrat, won despite the fact that a small majority of voters in his district’s most populous county (Lowndes) supported Trump in 2016. Colom is one of a small number of prosecutors nationwide with a stated policy of appointing an independent prosecutor for cases of law enforcement officers shooting civilians.

    Mississippi is divided into 22 judicial districts, which are split relatively evenly by population size. Each one of those districts has a single elected prosecutor.

    If a pro-reform DA were to win in Hinds County, that person would not only improve conditions in Hinds but would, along with Colom, represent a first step in wresting power away from the regressive Mississippi Prosecutors Association. Like virtually all District Attorneys associations, the MPA argues against common-sense measures to reduce the state’s prison population.

    The Hinds County district attorney race, then, surpasses the bitter contest for Mississippi governor as one that anybody interested in criminal justice reform should watch.


    Photo from Jackson, Mississippi by Melissa Newkirk on Unsplash

    • Rory Fleming

      Rory is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute. Rory is a licensed Minnesota attorney.

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