JACKSON, Miss.—Jackson residents who commit local misdemeanor offenses could soon appear before an unelected, Mississippi Supreme Court-appointed municipal judge from any part of the state after the Mississippi Legislature sent the final version of House Bill 1020 to Gov. Tate Reeves’ desk. If signed, the bill would take some authority away from elected judges and prosecutors in the 82%-Black city’s capitol district.
The Legislature separately sent a bill to the governor’s desk that, if signed, will expand the state-run Capitol Police’s jurisdiction to cover the entire city.
Earlier this year, Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba compared the legislation to segregation-era laws and said, “It reminds me of apartheid.”
Under H.B. 1020, the newly created municipal court would hear and determine all preliminary matters and decide misdemeanor cases that occur in part or in whole in the portion of the capital city designated as the Capitol Complex Improvement District starting January 2024 until July 2027. The House passed the bill in a 72-41 vote, and the Senate passed it in a 31-15 vote.
If Reeves signs H.B. 1020, the attorney general would also designate two prosecuting attorneys for the inferior court to prosecute crimes inside the CCID and would file criminal indictments for issues arising in part or in whole there “in the same manner and with the same authority of law provided for district attorneys and county prosecuting attorneys.” Both the district attorney and county attorney positions are elected in Mississippi.
These provisions would deprive the Hinds County voters who live inside in the carved-out CCID district of having the right to elect prosecutors and for their elected officials to select judges on their behalf, House Rep. Edward Blackmon Jr., D-Canton, said on the House floor Friday before the vote. In Jackson, the mayor nominates and the city council confirms municipal judges.
Blackmon warned that the bill will end up in court and said it violates the people’s right “to make decisions locally.”
Blackmon said the proposed expanded CCID would include a population that is 47% white and 53% Black. He pointed out that the expansion would include Fondren, Belhaven and Eastover, which he said are where “85% of white” residents live. “Which would be the intent,” he added.
If signed into law, the expansion will take effect in July 2024.
Like other municipal courts in the state, the new “CCID inferior court” would hear “all preliminary matters and criminal matters” along with all traffic vehicle and traffic law ordinance violations, including issues involving “disturbance of the peace,” the bill says. The bill also requires the Department of Public Safety to develop a 911 system for use within the CCID.
Earlier versions of H.B. 1020 included an expansion of Capitol Police. Instead, the Legislature separately passed Senate Bill 2343, which expands the jurisdiction of the state-run capitol police over the whole of the City of Jackson. The capitol police would have primary jurisdiction within the CCID and concurrent jurisdiction with the city and county in the rest of the city. The Department of Public Safety oversees the capitol police.
“The Chief of Capitol Police and/or the Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, the Chief of the Jackson Police Department and the Sheriff of Hinds County shall hold regular meeting within the boundaries of the Capitol Complex Improvement District to address the concerns of the public,” S.B. 2343 says. “Each meeting shall be called by the Chief of the Capitol Police; and the first meeting shall be called by October 15, 2023.”
‘Worse Than The Last Time’
Municipal courts usually determine misdemeanor cases with the convicted person serving possible jail time in the municipal or county jail. But the H.B. 1020 conference report would permit the appointed municipal judge to send a convicted person to prison in the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, which is the majority-white Rankin County suburb near Jackson.
House Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, questioned Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, about the provision to send arrestees to a prison in another county. Lamar, a North Mississippi representative and the author of H.B. 1020, presented the conference report on the House floor on March 31, 2023.
“In meetings with the commissioner right now, under existing law, the commissioner of public safety can contract with counties to house prisoners,” Lamar replied. “This just allows us to also contract with other state agencies, specifically, the MDOC facility (that) is located nearby in Rankin County.”
The bill also requires the City of Jackson to “at all times … adequately staff its police department with the necessary number of law enforcement officers” and says the “Jackson Police Department shall continue to enforce all ordinances of the City of Jackson.”
“How do you quantify an adequate police department?” Rep. Christopher Bell, D-Jackson, asked while commenting on the bill Friday before the House vote. “With police shortages everywhere, how can you attain the number of police officers that you need when you have Capitol Police taking people from (the city)? How can you enforce this section of this legislation?”
Lamar did not provide a response to those questions.
Unlike past versions, the bill does not require a memorandum of understanding between the City of Jackson and the Department of Public Safety, as indicated in the versions of the bill that the House and the Senate passed.
Johnson said the conference report was “worse than the last time” while speaking on the House floor Friday.
“This is a municipal court. Most of the time, it’s a fine, but there are some misdemeanors that you can be sentenced for in a municipal court. If someone makes the mistake of youth … then he could spend some time in jail,” he said ,adding that now, with the bill, a misdemeanor offense can result in prison time.
“I can guarantee it’s going to happen to somebody Black, we still live in an inequitable society. … You get convicted of a misdemeanor, and they’re going to send you to prison,” Johnson added.
Lamar defended the bill’s provision allowing counties to contract with MDOC. He said it was necessary because of the challenges when it comes to jail space in Hinds County and that the state facility is in better condition than the Hinds County Detention Center in Raymond, Miss.
The conference report requires the Supreme Court chief justice to appoint four temporary circuit judges for Hinds County until December 2026 in addition to the four elected circuit court judges.
The Supreme Court has been appointing temporary circuit court judges in the district for two years, and H.B. 1020 would simply codify it in law, Senate Judiciary Division A Chairman Brice Wiggins said in February. The Pascagoula Republican presented the conference report to the Senate on Thursday.
‘A Bully of the City of Jackson’
The bill allows the state public defender to appoint three additional assistants and gives the Hinds County district attorney a full-time investigator; the state would fund all four. The bill also increases the amount of local sales taxes diverted to the CCID from 6% to 9% for infrastructure repairs in the district.
Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson, said House Bill 1020 and similar bills targeting Jackson “have been extremely exhausting, they have frustrated us, they have taken our attention away from what we should be doing.”
“It almost feels like the state is being a bully of the city of Jackson. When you are in a bullying situation, the only thing you can do is fight your way out of it,” she added. “We do not receive this as a help.”
Summers said the money spent on the bill would be better used as an “investment in the communities.”
“Government should operate with the consent of the governed. How are appointed judges, how does that receive consent from the governed?” she said. “We could be solving real problems, but we want to attack Jackson. If this was happening in Senatobia, you’d say, ‘Hold up, come talk to my folk, what is it going to take for us to be brought to the table?’”
But Lamar insisted that he believes his legislation “is the right thing to provide protection” for Jackson.