Revised Plan for Justice System in Mississippi Capital Leaves Same Bitter Divide

For weeks, Mississippi’s overwhelmingly white and Republican Legislature has had an often heated debate over the relationship with its overwhelmingly Black and Democratic capital city, one that reflects the national differences over race and politics writ large.

The debate is over. Unsurprisingly, the differences remain.

On the final day of March, the Legislature sent Gov. Tate Reeves new legislation imposing a state-controlled police force and a second court system within the boundaries of Jackson, the troubled capital city of 150,000 that is the center of Black political power in the state. Nearly four in 10 Mississippians are Black, making it the state with the highest percentage of Black residents in the country. More than eight in 10 Jackson residents are.

The legislation, a compromise version of bills that the State House and Senate first passed last month, won final approval in votes that fell almost completely along racial and party lines. No Democrats supported the measures; only one of the 54 Black lawmakers in the Legislature, a political independent, did.

From the beginning, the Republicans who wrote the legislation and shepherded it to final passage insisted that they had not sought to usurp the authority of the city’s leaders, but rather wanted to help them battle a ferocious crime problem. Democrats — in particular, the 53 Black Democrats — called it a partisan power grab aimed at the Black political leadership in Jackson.

“It’s like post-Reconstruction,” Representative Robert L. Johnson III, the minority leader in the House, said, referring to the collapse of political rights that Black Americans briefly enjoyed after the Civil War. “They say: ‘You’ve had control for a while. But now we’re taking it back.’”

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Neither the Republican sponsor of the legislation, Representative Trey Lamar, nor Speaker Philip A. Gunn, a Republican representing part of Hinds County, which includes Jackson, responded to requests for comment.

But in debate over the final version of the legislation on March 31, Mr. Lamar angrily fired back against critics of the measure. “If I have to stand here and listen to being called a racist because I’m trying to do the right thing, we’re going to talk about the color that matters and that’s the red that flows in my veins and yours alike,” he said.

“We’re not going to turn over hundreds of millions of dollars to a city government over the last several years that’s theme is this — no water, no sewer, no garbage collection, no attempt to collect the necessary fees that operate those systems,” he added.

Nobody disputes that Jackson has a serious crime problem; in some recent years, the murder rate has been among the nation’s highest. “Crime in Jackson, especially violent crime, has gotten out of hand,” State Senator John Horhn, a Democrat who is Black, said in an interview. City leaders, who have bitterly protested the plan and the Legislature’s imposition of it on Jackson, seem helpless to rebuild their shrunken Police Department, he said, and courts are seen as too slow to hear criminal charges and too lenient in sentencing.

But the roots of such problems — such as a shrinking tax base to pay for running the city, including police protection and readying serious crime cases for court hearings — defy simple solutions, Mr. Horhn said. He likened the Legislature’s bills to “a bunch of guys who throw something against a wall to see if it will stick.”

In fact, the legislation passed on March 31 addresses some of the problems that Mr. Horhn and other Democrats lament. It allots state money for new judges, prosecutors and public defenders in the existing judicial system in Hinds County, where courts are overwhelmed by criminal cases. It potentially doubles police protection in Jackson by allowing a well-funded Capitol Police force — originally created to patrol a compact district surrounding state government buildings — to operate anywhere in the city.

To opponents, however, any benefits are far eclipsed by the shortcomings. Chief among them, they charge, is that much of the legislation amounts to a takeover of Jackson’s municipal duties by a white political and judicial establishment that does not answer to the city’s voters. Instead it largely benefits Jackson’s comparatively few white residents.

For example, critics say, the new bills expand the original district patrolled by the Capitol Police northward to cover most of the city’s long-established white neighborhoods — neighborhoods that will now be protected primarily by the state, instead of the undermanned Jackson Police Department.

While a smaller expansion in the southern part of the city incorporates predominantly Black areas, critics say the racial composition of the new district remains disproportionately white compared with the entire city.

The expanded police district also will be served by a new and separate municipal court, its judge and staff chosen and paid by the state, that will hear misdemeanor cases and process felony arrests, setting bail and other conditions before trials are held elsewhere.

Notably, people convicted of misdemeanors would not be sent to local jails, but to the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in nearby Pearl, one of four state prisons that are being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department for substandard and dangerous conditions. The department released a damning report last April on conditions at Mississippi State Penitentiary, the state’s main prison, and said inquires at the remaining three were continuing.

Jackson’s predominantly white neighborhoods “will now have their own special court, special judges, special prosecutors and special police force,” Cliff Johnson, the director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi, said. And anyone convicted of a misdemeanor meriting jail time would serve time in the state’s troubled prison system, not a local lockup.

State Representative Earle S. Banks, a Jackson resident who was the lone Democrat on the House conference committee that helped craft the final legislation, said in an interview that he was able to add provisions that would benefit the city that involved new public defenders and prosecutors. But he said he was excluded from committee meetings where the final versions of the bills were prepared, and requested the changes only after that version was handed to him minutes before the 8 p.m. deadline for voting on the measure.

Mr. Banks refused to sign the conference report. “They decided what they were going to do, and I was one vote out of six,” he said. “They really did not need me.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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