Yet another detainee has died while awaiting trial in the Hinds County Detention Center for 18 months, officials confirmed Monday. The death comes just weeks after Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens touted his office’s efforts to move more cases from trial and into diversion programs to, in part, reduce the length of time people are detained in the jail without going to trial.
At a Jan. 25 press conference, District Attorney Jody Owens said his focus is on diversion in which offenders may have to finish rehabilitation programs, pay restitution, and meet other conditions to avoid being charged with a crime. He said it is meant to help people who have committed “smaller crimes” avoid getting felony charges.
“Usually, when you see someone who has committed a violent crime, that’s not the first crime that’s been committed. Crime builds up; the same is true of drug usage,” he added in response to a question from the Mississippi Fress Press on the diversion program. “So we can find those individuals early on and try to help them; we can certainly impact (them).”
“What’s most important for us—which is why we indict felonies out here every day—we know the impact it has on individuals, so we can keep somebody from being in that system.”
Of 1,017 felony cases resolved in 2022, the district attorney resolved 42% in diversion programs; 45% resulted in felony convictions; and 13% ended in dismissals, with 42% of the 1,017 felony cases disposed of in 2022 being sent there, compared to 45% resulting in felony convictions and 13% being dismissed.
Latest Death at Hinds County Detention Facility
Hinds County Sheriff Tyree Jones told the Mississippi Free Press on Tuesday that about 600 detainees are awaiting trial at the Hinds County Detention Center. They are legally innocent until proven otherwise in court, but have long been forced to wait many months and often years in jail before going to trial.
The facility was under a consent decree from 2016 to 2022 over dangerous conditions there. In December 2022, the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals halted a federal district judge’s order of receivership for the facility, which recorded a detainee’s death by hanging on Feb. 6.
“Brandon Flowers … was found hanging in his cell unresponsive,” Sheriff Tyree Jones said at a press conference Monday. When the incident occurred, Flowers, 32, had been detained on capital-murder charges at the facility for over 18 months—since June 2021. “This is the first death at the detention center since October 2021,” the sheriff added.
Court documents show that at least five people died at the Hinds County Detention Center in 2021. One of them was 41-year-old Michael Richardson, who had been arrested that October for possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. He died 10 days after his arrest when fellow detainees repeatedly hit him on the head.
Hinds DA Increased Expungement Numbers
In Jan. 25, 2023, press conference, the Hinds County District Attorney told the Mississippi Free Press that one of the benefits to participants involved in the pretrial diversion program is expungements, which increased from 75 in 2021 to 109 in 2022.
“We track individuals when we divert them to make sure they automatically get free expungement,” he said. “Oftentimes, when your people have paid their debt to society, and unfortunately, they cannot afford to get an expungement … it might be done improperly … so because we’re here, we walk them through the process, we file it ourselves, and we make sure the judges hear the expungement.”
“We can’t prosecute ourselves solely to a safer Hinds County, and so many people can’t pass a background check, and it’s a small crime that happened decades ago or 10 years ago that continues to impact their lives,” he added. “So we’ve identified those individuals, and we continue to do it for free.”
The Hinds district attorney sees diversion as a service for the people in the county.
“The average expungement can cost an individual a thousand dollars,” he said. “So if we can provide $300,000 in free legal services to the citizens, we think it’s an added public good that can achieve greater goals.”
Re-Entry Partnership with the ACLU
In December 2022, the Hinds County District Attorney’s office announced a partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union for a re-entry program to help individuals returning home rebuild their post-incarceration lives.
Mississippi ACLU Executive Director Jarvis Dortch explained this in a Dec. 5, 2022, press release from the district attorney’s office. Dortch said that the organization’s involvement is geared toward prison population reduction.
“A critical method to reducing prison populations is ensuring people returning home do not go back into the system,” Dortch said in the statement. “Our goal is that this program is to provide those returning home with the resources they need to rebuild their lives post-incarceration.”
“We’re grateful to the Hinds County District Attorney’s Office for their collaboration to provide individuals who have short-term, lower-level offenses, intensive case management, and necessary employment, housing and suffrage restoration services,” he added.
Owens told the Mississippi Free Press on Jan. 15 that his goal is to bring “individuals back into public safety and become productive tax-paying citizens.” The re-entry program, he said, “focuses on employment, transportation, and living for individuals who are coming back in the community and is primarily focusing right now on the incarcerated woman.”
“We think it’s a pilot that we’re going to expand to the males as well,” he added. “We think we’re in a unique position because we know who’s coming back to the community, so we ensure that they have the things they need to be successful.”
On Jan. 12, Owens’ office released a report on its 2022 activities, showing that the district attorney “saw 25% more active cases resolved through guilty verdicts, guilty pleas or pretrial diversion” compared to 2021.
“Specifically in 2022, we saw an indictment of 2025 counts of 1,226 individuals,” said Owens, a Democrat who announced his re-election campaign early last month. He first ran in 2019 with the promise of de-emphasizing incarceration.
“Most importantly, we’re proud that we were able to prosecute over 1,017 individuals. … [T]hat’s convictions of crimes resolved in Hinds County, which is an increase from 2021 of 15%, where we were only able to prosecute 883 individuals.”
“Due to the commitment of the state and local leadership, we saw a 133% increase in trials in Hinds County—pretty significant—35 criminal trials, that’s 35 juries,” he said and added that his office needs a permanent funding stream to reflect the caseload it handles.
‘A 21st Century Prosecution Office’
At the Jan. 25 press conference, District Attorney Owens said he wants to transform his office into “a 21st century prosecution office” with a new software program.
“This office has not had a software increase probably ever, and this software will allow us to interact with victims, courts, (and) discovery.” he said at a Jan. 25 press conference.
The district attorney’s chief of staff, Samantha Grant, told the Mississippi Free Press on Monday that the company, Karpel, is installing the software, also named Karpel. The program is now in the implementation phase with the final cost unknown, “but it exceeds six figures,” she said.
“The capabilities it provides are wide-ranging criminal case management, including evidence and restitution tracking, e-discovery capabilities, comprehensive victim services and the ability to go paperless,” Grant said.
During his Jan. 25 press conference, Owens said Karpel will also support local police departments in Hinds County, including the City of Jackson, Byram, Clinton, and Edwards police departments, as well as the state-funded capitol police.
The Mississippi Llegislature’s funding, which also provided one-year funding for five additional prosecutors, made the software upgrade possible. Owens reiterated that he wants a permanent stream of funding to reflect the caseload his office handles.
State May Reduce Owens’ Jurisdiction
House Bill 1020, which is currently moving through the Mississippi Legislature, will reduce Owen’s prosecutorial jurisdiction with the appointment of unelected judges and prosecutors over portions of the capital city. State-appointed judges would take over cases where the State of Mississippi is a party and cases that occur in the Capitol Complex Improvement District, an area covering the complex and its surrounding areas.
The Hinds County District Attorney’s office opposes the bill.
“The truth is that the Hinds County District Attorney’s Office is and always has been underfunded and understaffed by the Legislature,” the district attorney’s office said in a statement on Jan. 30. “Over the past three years, State leadership has temporarily invested more resources for criminal justice in Hinds County, and we have made great progress.”
“Instead of permanently investing these resources, House Bill 1020 will create a separate criminal justice system with no input from the citizens of Hinds County,” Owens’ office added. “To take this monumental step backwards removes self-government and minimizes the voices of our citizens.”
Owens announced his re-election campaign on Jan. 5. Darla Palmer is his sole opponent. She ran in 2019 against him for the Democratic ticket but is now running as an independent. They will face off in the November general election.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens has one challenger for his 2023 re-election from independent Darla Palmer.