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Making Mississippi safer a goal for SafeCity Initiative

Jackson — The SafeCity Initiative (SCI) wants to send a message to criminals: don’t cross the state line into Mississippi.

“Right now, you could be a repeat felon out on bond in multiple jurisdictions throughout our state and nobody would know about it,” said SCI chairman Clint Herring. “There are basically 82 fiefdoms in this state and that’s got to end. Mississippi has 2.5 million people, a number that’s easier to manage than many municipalities in the country. We have to more wisely use our resources. It logically makes sense to connect the systems.”

For a decade, the organization was known as the Metro Crime Commission. It merged with another group, SafeCity Watch, which business leaders, including Herring, formed “to include everyone in the community,” he said.

“For some reason over the years, from an identification perspective, the Metro Crime Commission appeared exclusionary,” said Herring. “It wasn’t their intent, but in branding issues, you have to address that.”

The merged entity became known as SCI, with a business-laden board of directors, including Warren Speed, son of Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) director Leland Speed. The first meeting was held at the Masonic Temple next to Jackson State University “so the community and state would know we mean business in every nook and cranny.”

“We determined that focusing strictly on one municipality in the state — the metro area — was ludicrous because it’s a statewide problem, not a citywide problem,” said Herring. “Bullets don’t know county lines or city lines. They prey where people allow them to. Quality of life is Mississippi’s single most beneficial economic development tool. It’s traditionally been a great place to raise a family. We cannot let that erode.”

All four areas must work together: law enforcement agencies and departments, the prosecutorial system, the court system and the correctional system, said Herring.

“If there’s a breakdown in any area, a backlog is created in the system,” he said. “We can have the most vigilant and dedicated sheriff’s department in the world, for example, but if they pick up people who don’t get properly and efficiently prosecuted and adjudicated, we have a revolving door problem.”

To address the problem in a comprehensive way, SCI leaders are working on a centralized Criminal Justice Management System (CJMS).

“We thought, where’s the scorecard? Where’s the measuring stick to determine the performance level of these entities? Bottlenecks exist,” said Herring. “You have to have a scorecard to know where to make changes.”

Working with an annual budget of $350,000 to $500,000, SCI is also developing ways to use special statutory powers to reduce prosecutorial and court backlogs and to address the state’s correctional facilities capacity problems.

“Right now, we’re at about 98% capacity in corrections,” said Herring. “We’ve got to look at wiser ways to deal with that area. Is it smart, for example, to have a DUI offender, where no death was involved, taking up a jail cell in Parchman when a violent offender is on the streets because you have a capacity problem? One judge told a repeat DUI offender that he could either go to Parchman or pay for court costs, the prosecutor’s time and a drug rehab program. He had to prove to the judge that he had a job and transportation. The guy logically chose the second option. It didn’t cost the taxpayers anything and the guy has an opportunity to do better. We intend to propose purely logical legislation that would assist in matters like that.”

SCI also plans to recommend house arrests with GPS tracking as a more viable option for non-violent offenders, which would save the state about $35 a day per person, said Herring.

“Ultimately, prevention is the single most cost-effective and beneficial solution for society,” he said. “Right now, we’re in such crisis management that law enforcement doesn’t have the opportunity to get to the prevention mode. It’s not that people aren’t trying. They’re just thinking of it wrong. Acting like 82 individual counties opposed to addressing the problem is like trying to run a business without a balance sheet and an income statement.”

For two years, Herring has traveled to inner-city churches, discussing problems related to crime.

“It’s heartbreaking for me to see the single mom on the proverbial other side of the tracks trying hard to raise kids correctly and worrying about them being preyed on by drug dealers,” he said. “It’s unrighteous for society to let that go on. You lose order on the streets; then society breaks down. We’re already facing so many battles with families breaking down that I thought this was a topic we could address, to bring stability where people don’t have it.”

SCI vice chairman Mark J. McCreery said a major reason for the September 11th terrorist attacks “was a failure to communicate among the FBI and CIA,” he said.

“We have much the same problem in Mississippi: 82 sheriffs, 250-plus cities, U.S. Attorney, ATF, Capitol Police, university and junior college forces, 22 district attorneys and hundreds of judges all have separate systems. There is very little sharing of information.

SCI director Alton Windsor said working together is vital “to making a difference in the crime situation in Mississippi and creating a more favorable environment for business in the state. We want to present Mississippi as a great place to locate or expand business.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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