Thursday, December 7, 2017
JACKSON On the steps of the federal courthouse in downtown Jackson, U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst stood alongside federal, state and local law enforcement as he announced their new project to reduce violent crime in the City of Jackson called Project EJECT: Empower Jackson Expel Crime Together.
On a cold morning, Hurst explained that this project would be the southern district of Mississippi's iteration of a violent-crime reduction initiative that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reinvigorating called Project Safe Neighborhoods that first began during the George W. Bush administration in 2001. Hurst said about a dozen special agents from federal and state agencies have already started collaborating with local law enforcement and going out to crime scenes with Jackson Police Department officers to help collect evidence and investigate crimes.
Following a national trend, the feds would then bring those cases to the U.S. attorney's office to determine if there's enough evidence to prosecute suspects in the federal system.
Special Agent in Charge of the FBI, Christopher Freeze, brought up that Mississippi ranks sixth in the nation for murder and manslaughters per the FBI's 2016 Uniform Crime Report.
"That's unacceptable," Freeze said. "Not only do we have a legal obligation, I believe we have a moral obligation to ensure that violent crime, especially crimes committed with firearms, are significantly reduced. If we expect Jackson and the surrounding metropolitan area to be a viable option for our children, and for their future, we need to work diligently to reduce not only violence in general, but violence committed with a firearm."
To illustrate how the project will work, Hurst used a basketball analogy. In basketball, when you make a mistake, a referee will call a foul. Hurst said he had his fair share of fouls when he played basketball in his youth. But, he added, when someone fouls another player in a "flagrant" way, they are ejected from the game. For him, Project EJECT is about consequences, but also about hope.
"When you get ejected from a basketball game, you're not banned for life," Hurst said. "If you want to come back the next game, abide by the rules, then you're welcome to play. And I would say the same for Project EJECT. Come back, after you serve your sentence, be rehabilitated, abide by our rules, and we will welcome you back with open arms in our community."
When the task force determines that a suspect can be prosecuted federally, Hurst said, authorities will lock him or her up immediately in detention without bond, and law enforcement will not cut a deal so the suspect could be released in a few months. The next step would be serving time without parole in the federal system likely far, far away from Mississippi "so that they cannot continue their criminal activity behind bars." The idea is that the criminals would be away from their criminal networks and, thus, be likely to commit less crime. They would also be far from their families.
Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith attended the press conference, and told the Jackson Free Press he is looking forward to the "benefits" of being able to use federal courts as a resource as well. He is facing a trial on domestic-violence charges in Rankin County at the end of January 2018. Also in the crowd was Sheriff Victor Mason who was sued in two sexual-harassment lawsuits.
Hurst mentioned that he and the law enforcement officers surrounding him from JPD, the Hinds County Sheriff's office, other prosecutor and the FBI agree that they cannot arrest their way out of the crime problem in Jackson. However, Hurst does believe there is a "deterrent aspect to (Project EJECT)" in that it communicates that people who commit violent crimes will face harsh consequences.
A full archive of the JFP's "Preventing Violence" series, supported by grants from the Solutions Journalism Network. Photo of Zeakyy Harrington by Imani Khayyam.
Jackson Police Chief Lee Vance said his "greatest wish" is that some young man in Jackson thinking about getting into a life of crime will rethink his actions "once he sees what happens to some of these individuals that have already gotten caught up, who are already indicted and who are already on their way to federal prison for a long time perhaps thousands of miles away from here."
Hurst assured the crowd that on the other side of the consequences of the law, there has to be hope and prevention through faith-based efforts, nonprofits and businesses who need to give people a second chance when they return to communities after serving their sentences. While some pastors and other leaders were in the crowd, none of them spoke, and the press conference fell short of expounding on just how crime prevention might play out in this initiative.
"I said consequences and hope because I don't want the consequences to be the only aspect of it," Hurst told the Jackson Free Press immediately following the press conference."There has to be hope. There has to be hope before the crime occurs, and there's got to be hope after the sentence has been served. So, yeah, there is a deterrent effect, but it's got to be in partnership with hope."