Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens has wasted no time over the past year in helping reduce his office’s backlog of cases and helping the county address its provisions of its jail consent decree.
Since being sworn in January 2020, Owens and his staff have helped reduce the total number of detainees at the Hinds County Detention Center by at least 25 percent.
And in the past few months, while many offices have been closed as a result of COVID-19, his staffers have been hard at work whittling down a backlog of cases.
“We don’t have a backlog ... at this time,” he said. “If someone is arrested and their cases are brought to us, they will be presented to a grand jury.”
When Owens took office he brought some pretty lofty goals.
Among them, he wanted to reduce the time it took in between a person being arrested and a person being indicted by a grand jury.
He also wanted to help reduce the number of individuals being detained at the detention center, something required under the county’s consent decree with the federal government.
“Our goal is, if someone commits a crime, we indict them within 30 days,” he said. “There was a shooting at the M-Bar and that person was indicted within 30 days.”
The individual, Javarius Stewart, was arrested in early July in connection with a deadly shooting at the M-Bar Sports Bar and Grill.
Previously, it could have taken months before charges were brought against that individual.
“There used to be a time when we’d have to get to it three or four grand juries down the line, which is three or four months down the line,” Owens said. “Now, we’re able to take it to the grand jury immediately.
“This is a pretty significant part of the process.”
Grand juries convene once a month and continued to meet even during the coronavirus outbreak.
“We used COVID as an opportunity. Because no trials were occurring, we diverted manpower to catch up on indictments,” he said.
Efforts have paid off. Earlier in the fall grand juries had handed down indictments on 800 charges, or about 600 people.
“When a case is brought to us, we have to determine what the appropriate charges are and then present it to the grand jury,” Owens said. “That takes a lot of manpower.”
While moving forward on indictments, the district attorney has also been working to reduce the number of detainees being held by the county.
That has been done, in part, by reducing bail for those involved in non-violent crimes and by offering reasonable plea deals to individuals already facing charges.
Once detainees accept a plea deal, they can be transferred to the Mississippi Department of Corrections and sent to a long-term facility.
For years, the Hinds County jail had been used as a long-term facility, even though it was designed as a temporary holding area for pre-trial detainees.
In fact, some individuals had been in the jail for years, including one person who was there since 2008, Owens said.
As part of its consent decree provisions, the county “must ensure that the jail timely releases from custody all individuals entitled to be released.”
Those entitled to release include individuals who have completed sentences, have been acquitted of charges following a trial, those who have had charges dismissed, those released on a court order, and those detained by a law enforcement agency but never have charges brought against them, the decree states.
The county agreed to decree terms in 2016. The document has been filed in federal court.
“We evaluated the current jail population, focused on who had been there the longest and determined that some non-violent offenders were eligible for bond but couldn’t make bond,” he said. “We identified those individuals and worked with the public defender to get bonds.”
In other cases, Owens said his office has offered plea deals.
“Generally, a plea deal comes with less time than they would get a trial, so the signs support that more than 80 percent will accept a plea,” he said.
The previous managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center said that several factors go into determining appropriate pleas.
“You come up with a reasonable plea by evaluating the record of the defendant, whether there is a prior history, the crime itself, the level of violence and heinousness, the suspect’s remorsefulness, the victim and the level of innocence of the victim … was a weapon used,” he said. “Those type of things impact the severity of the offer.”
For instance, a case where victim is stabbed once in a fight is far different than a case where the victim is stabbed multiple times, he explained.
A case involving children being victimized is also different than a case involving adults of the same age.
Said Owens, “For crimes against children and defenseless individuals, there is no tolerance.”