The Next Front Line of the Mass Incarceration Fight Is Mississippi

Jody Owens, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Mississippi, addresses a crowd of around 500 people against House Bill 1523 outside the governor's office in the state capitol in Jackson, Mississippi.

Source James Patterson/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign

Why you should care

Because the decarceration debate is spreading throughout the country.

This morning, more than 19,000 people will wake up in state prisons across Mississippi, home to the nation’s third-highest incarceration rate. More than half of them will be Black, even though African Americans represent just 30 percent of the state’s population. This is the world where Jody Owens grew up, and the one he wants to change.

Owens, 37, a candidate for district attorney of Hinds County in the Aug. 6 Democratic primary, knows his platform does not fit the norm of a Mississippi DA. As he seeks to lead criminal prosecutions in the county that includes the state capital of Jackson, Owens wants to utilize drug courts and restorative justice programs to send fewer people to prison. He won’t charge low-level marijuana cases, and he will only seek cash bail for defendants when he deems that not doing so would impact public safety or risk a no-show at trial.

On paper, his ideas match those of upstart District Attorney Larry Krasner of Philadelphia and DA candidate Tiffany Cabán of Queens, New York.

But the place where he’s running could not look more different.

He’s been able to build consensus with some unlikely partners, including a Mississippi legislature that’s overwhelmingly Republican. 

Brandon Jones, who works with Owens as policy counsel at SPLC

Drive north on I-55 from Jackson, and you’ll find the bridge where Emmett Till’s body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Drive south on I-49 and you’ll come to the childhood home and “presidential library” of Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederacy. Peppered around the state, you’ll find the sites of all 581 of Mississippi’s lynchings between 1882 and 1968. 

Owens was born in Mississippi in the summer of 1981, the same year Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency and just one year before the former California governor would declare that the United States was running up a “battle flag” in the war against drugs. 

 

The son of two educators, Owens grew up on a small cattle farm in Terry, Mississippi. He and his siblings would help their father herd the cows to the market, where buyers would bid on each one by the pound. His uncle, Bob Owens, was the first in the family to pass the state bar exam in 1976, and his aunt, Denise Owens, has been a judge in Hinds County since Jody was 8. 

Owens’ ancestors tasted freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation, lived through Reconstruction and worked long days on the family farm during the civil rights movement. 

“My grandparents could not be educated. They were Black, and they were in Mississippi,” the candidate explains. But when proper schooling became available, they made a point to value it. His grandmother, who never had a formal education as a child, enrolled in a local elementary school to demonstrate to her children the importance of their schooling. Owens’ father, by turn, would grow up to be a principal.

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The overcrowded Coahoma County jail in Clarksdale, Mississippi, is was built in 1925.

Source Shepard Sherbell/Getty

After five years serving as a corporate defense lawyer in Mississippi, where he notes some of his clients traveled via private jets, Owens went home for something more fulfilling. Since 2011, Owens has worked as the managing attorney of the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and he has been busy. He has led lawsuits against Jackson Public Schools, Hinds County and the East Mississippi Correctional Facility to secure better treatment of students and prisoners.

Outside the courtroom, Owens has faced a different set of challenges at the Statehouse — where Republicans have been in complete control since 2012.

State Rep. Mark Baker, a Republican running to become Mississippi’s next attorney general who has expressed his wish to work with President Donald Trump, isn’t convinced by the DA candidate’s platform. “What we need to be focusing on are the 50 pounds of meth that came through Rankin County the other day, or the 114 kilograms of fentanyl that was seized on the southern border that is going to find its way to Mississippi,” Baker says.

Baker sees a rising crime rate in Jackson — where 56 murders have already occurred in 2019 — and he wants more convictions, not fewer. New York City, where Cabán launched her candidacy, saw roughly three murders per 100,000 residents in 2018. Krasner’s hometown of Philadelphia had nearly 20 per 100,000 — a rate that Mayor Jim Kenney called “disturbing.” Meanwhile, Jackson had more than 50 murders per 100,000 residents — the third-highest rate of any major city in the country, according to data from the FBI, Murder Accountability Project, the U.S. Census Bureau and WBLT.

The Top 5 U.S. Big City Murder Rates

City (population > 150,000) Murder Rate

St. Louis

60.3

Birmingham

50.8

Jackson

50.3

Baltimore

50.2

Detroit

38.8

 

In Baker’s eyes, this alarmingly high rate highlights a dire need to work with police departments to promote public safety. “We need prosecutors who are working with law enforcement and with courts and with the system to put violent criminals in jail,” Baker says. “They need to get off the street.”

But despite divergent ideologies, Owens has found ways to work across party lines. He worked with the state Legislature to stop juveniles with misdemeanors from being sent to detention facilities, and he has helped pass legislation allowing these young people to expunge minor offenses from their record. “He’s been able to build consensus with some unlikely partners, including a Mississippi Legislature that’s overwhelmingly Republican, overwhelmingly conservative,” says Brandon Jones, who works with Owens as policy counsel at SPLC. 

Baker and his fellow lawmakers at the state capitol will present serious problems to the viability of Owens’ platform as a statewide model — or even its ability to get off the ground in Jackson. Owens’ response? He’ll sell his agenda to state lawmakers as much as it takes, and “continue to give them real-life examples.”

Before he can do that, he will have to beat prosecutor Stanley Alexander and public defender Darla Palmer on Tuesday. Owens has raised far more money than both of them combined while boasting the support of Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King. Win the primary, and he is guaranteed victory in the fall, as no Republicans or third-party candidates bothered filing. But, if he assumes office in January of 2020, he’ll be ready to fight.

“When the status quo doesn’t like you trying to change something, you’ll always get some type of pushback,” Owens says. In Mississippi, that pushback is harder than most.

OZY’s 5 Questions With Jody Owens 

  • What’s the last book you read? How Democracies Die by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky. 
  • What do you worry about? The country that I’m leaving my kids. 
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Knowledge. 
  • Who’s your hero? My parents. 
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? Go to Africa.

Read more: How a new prison reform law can be traced to this conservative ex-con 

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