Editor’s note: The League of Women Voters-East Central Mississippi posed the following question to Michael Grace and Kassie Coleman, candidates for district attorney for the 10th Circuit Court. Grace, a Democrat, will face Coleman, a Republican, in the Nov. 5 general election.
The League of Women Voters supports the establishment of a justice system that imposes fair and equitable control over the flow of prisoners into the state’s correctional system while reducing sentence disparity.
Regarding expedition of cases, The Meridian Star reported in February 2018 of lengthy delays of accused persons going to trial. The article cites numerous reasons for delays: systemic processes, volume of caseloads, resource availability and lack of personnel.
What changes will you bring to the district attorney’s office to expedite cases so the accused, victims and police can see justice move in a more timely manner?
Kassie Coleman: Creating and maintaining a timely justice process is a collaborative effort. As district attorney, I am committed to making the necessary changes to help resolve cases in the most timely and efficient manner.
Towards this end, I established the first Pretrial Intervention Program in this district to allow non-violent, first-time offenders a second chance when they need it most. Participants are required to pay fines, fees, court costs, and restitution to victims in a timely fashion.
They are also required to report monthly, subjected to random drug testing, and prohibited from committing any new offenses. This prosecution-led diversion program pays for itself, thus saving countless taxpayer dollars, while simultaneously rehabilitating some non-violent offenders.
Our program connects participants with community partners and resources to help them succeed.
As district attorney, I am also honored to have the responsibility and privilege of serving as a drug court team member. Drug Court helps participants overcome addiction. Many participants have shared that if they had not been arrested, and thus facing the option of drug court or jail, they would not have sought treatment. Without a doubt, drug court saves lives.
Utilizing diversion programs is a proven method that helps reduce a crowded docket, saves taxpayers’ money, and allows participants to avoid the debilitating stigma of a felony conviction. As District Attorney, my policy is to offer all eligible offenders the opportunity to participate in these programs.
Next, I am phasing in a more vertically-oriented approach to prosecution by involving our assistant district attorneys in new felony cases before they reach the grand jury.
Assigning an assistant district attorney to handle each case from beginning to end creates a system of individual responsibility. It encourages a more substantive case review and evaluation prior to grand jury. It also enhances prosecutorial accountability as the case moves through the criminal justice system.
Experience has shown that it helps foster closer relationships with victims and their families. Lastly, vertical prosecution allows prosecutors to develop more of an expertise in the types of cases they handle.
Partnering with U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst in Project EJECT is another progressive change I have made as district attorney. Project EJECT is a collaborative prosecution effort between state and federal law enforcement. This program focuses on violent offenders and offenders who use firearms to commit felony offenses.
Every case that is adopted and prosecuted in the federal system helps reduce our circuit court docket. I am thankful for the assistance of the federal law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In the future, I plan to apply and utilize all grant funding opportunities to grow our staff and resources to better serve our communities. The Tenth Circuit Court District Attorney’s Office serves Lauderdale, Clarke, Kemper and Wayne counties. There are only nine employees—four assistant district attorneys, two investigators, two victim witness coordinators, and one paralegal—to assist in covering our large, four-county district.
I will seek grant funding for additional prosecutors, investigators and victim’s advocates.
There are several serious issues that slow the criminal justice system statewide. Lengthy delays in obtaining autopsy reports, staff shortages at the Mississippi Forensics Laboratory, and lengthy wait times for mental evaluations are all challenges that must be addressed by our state legislature. I will continue to help seek solutions in these crucial areas.