From fighting crime to collecting on debts owed to the federal government, U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst has a full plate. Hurst, who has served in the position since October 2017, recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about his position, as well as Project EJECT, (Empower Justice, Expel Crime Together) a collaborative effort between his office, federal law enforcement officers and the Jackson Police Department (JPD) to take criminals off the streets. Hurst is a graduate of East Central Community College, Millsaps College, and George Washington University. He and his wife are raising four children.
How is Project EJECT going?
“It’s going great. We finished 2018 in Jackson with almost 140 people indicted for various federal crimes – illegal firearms to business robberies to carjackings. We already convicted about 70 percent of those individuals and have taken about 130 illegal guns off the streets, which is a huge success in itself.
“A lot of folks talk about the 25 to 30 percent increase in murders in Jackson, but overall the violent crime rate in Jackson fell seven percent last year. That’s a pretty significant drop for one year. Again, that’s attributable to what men and women have done under Project EJECT. If you look at aggravated assaults, carjackings and compare 2018 to 2017, we’re seven percent lower. What that translates into is 108 fewer victims of violent crimes in Jackson.”
Why does your office only focus on illegal firearms, carjackings and things like that?
“We don’t have much jurisdiction over local violent crimes, except for those few things. We’re trying to use every tool we have in the federal system to go after violent crime in Jackson.”
Are many of the individuals your office has prosecuted repeat offenders?
Exactly how does Project EJECT work?
“What we do is partner with the Jackson Police Department, the Hinds County district attorney and a number of federal criminal investigative agencies to investigate any and all federal crimes that occur in the capital city. Through that coordination, we decide with the Hinds County district attorney who has the best bang for the buck in prosecuting these cases. That’s the prosecution side.
“We also are doing a lot on the prevention side. We’re going into schools, educating kids about the life choices they make and consequences. Last year, we spoke to over 400 kids in Jackson Public Schools and at the Boys and Girls’ Clubs around the city of Jackson. You may have seen last year we also did a number of town hall meetings across the city to communicate to the public what we have done with Project EJECT, but also solicited their opinions and ideas to make the project work better.”
What are some of the ideas your office took from those meetings and are now using?
“Originally our project was recommending the court impose sentences outside the state of Mississippi, and we have since changed Project EJECT to no longer do that, because we are also doing re-entry efforts under this project. Citizens spoke to us and said help offenders where they are instead of sending them far away. It’s tough to do re-entry work when you’re recommending someone to be sentenced outside of Mississippi.”
How long are the sentences being given?
“They range anywhere from a year in prison to 15 years, with the average being around five to six years.”
When will some of the first people under EJECT be eligible for parole?
“Another aspect of Project EJECT in the federal system is that we have no parole. That’s a huge deterrent to offenders who commit federal crimes. On the prosecution side, those are a few of the things I’ve told my folks and we’re trying to communicate to offenders. If you violate federal law in Jackson, we’re going to arrest you immediately and we’re going to move to detain you until your trial. We’ve detained 98 percent of the individuals. It locks these people up so they can’t continue to terrorize their communities while they’re awaiting trial.”
So, none have been released yet?
“I would not think so, but I don’t know for certain.”
What is your office doing to prepare offenders for re-entry?
“We are working with the bureau, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which has a facility in Yazoo City, to go into the prison and educate offenders that are currently incarcerated about the legal issues they’ll face once they’re released. We’ll be educating them about things to avoid, about possessing illegal firearms and other federal crimes they might not be aware of. We’re currently working with the prison to do a mock job fair, where we’ll go in and help offenders prepare for job interviews. We’re doing a clothing drive at our office to help prisoners have the clothes they’ll need for interviews, and we’re organizing a re-entry fair to match up potential employers with offenders about to be released.”
When will that be?
“In April. We’re still trying to nail down the date for that.”
How many employers do you hope will participate?
“I have an assistant U.S. attorney organizing that. I don’t have the numbers right now.”
Right now, Rukia Lumumba is also working on a plan to deal with crime, through a public health approach – treating crime like it’s a disease, rather than an occurrence. What are your thoughts on her plans?
“Any creative idea to intervene and prevent crime is a good thing.”
What are some of the other responsibilities of your office?
“We’re responsible for representing the federal government civilly when sued and collecting debts owed to the federal government – student loans, assets that are forfeited and seized and restitution owned to victims. We have a financial litigation unit set up to collect any debts.”
What percentage of time does your office spend on addressing criminal matters versus civil ones?
“Maybe the easier way to break it down internally is how many attorneys we have assigned to each area. We have 38 attorneys in the entire Southern District of Mississippi, in our Jackson and Gulfport offices. Twenty-eight are criminal assistant U.S. attorneys and about 10 percent are civil assistant U.S. attorneys. Obviously, the majority of the stuff we do is criminal prosecution.”
How can your office help with Jackson’s homicide rate?
“I don’t know. What we’re being told by JPD is that most of these murders are interpersonal, or murders involving people that know each other … At the end of the day, if you pick up a gun and murder someone, it’s hard to stop it in the moment it’s happening.”
Will your office be impacted by the state criminal justice reforms being made?
“Not really, because it’s reforming state law. We in the U.S. office only deal with federal law. I’ve heard about it, seen bits and pieces of it, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to give an opinion on it.”
Will your office be affected by the recent federal criminal justice reform measure passed?
“It does affect our office, but we’re still digesting what the legislation does and how it affects our ability to prosecute cases.”
Project EJECT is being expanded into other cities: Hattiesburg, Meridian, Moss Point and Natchez. EJECT stands for “Empower Justice, Expel Crime Together.”