$500k set aside to fight misdemeanors in Jackson 8 months ago has gone untouched, council members say

Updated: Jun. 16, 2021 at 5:46 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Months after the Jackson City Council set aside half a million dollars and approved two agreements to house misdemeanor offenders out of the county, the funds remain untouched and jail space unused, even as the mayor claims the city doesn’t have space to lock offenders up.

In October, the council approved entering into agreements to transport and temporarily house more serious misdemeanor offenders in Holmes and Yazoo counties.

At the time, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said space was needed, so the police department could discontinue its “catch and release policy,” a refrain he’s used for months when confronted with the city’s crime problem.

Eight months later, though, one agreement has yet to be finalized, and the city has yet to act on another.

“It hasn’t been used,” said Holmes County Sheriff Willie March. “I don’t know why. I hadn’t thought about it.”

March said the Holmes County Board of Supervisors signed off on the agreement last year, and that the only stipulation was that Jackson screen detainees for COVID-19 before bringing them up.

“If they don’t have a temperature, bring them on,” he said. “That’s the only thing we require of them.”

Under terms of the agreements, Jackson would pay $25 a day per bed used in Yazoo County and $31 a day per bed used in Holmes County.

Costs would include all supplies, equipment, health screenings, blankets, water, food, and clothing used to accommodate detainees.

The council set aside $500,000 to cover the expenses in its 2021 budget, Ward Three Councilman Kenneth Stokes said.

The Holmes County board signed off on the agreement in November, according to Board Attorney Katherine Barrett Riley.

Confusion remains, though, as to whether the deal needs attorney general approval.

Under state statute, interlocal agreements, which are agreements between multiple government agencies, must be approved by the state attorney general’s office.

Jackson Director of Communications Michelle Atoa, though, said the deal was not an interlocal agreement, but rather a deal between two counties.

“It’s just an agreement between COJ and Holmes County and does not need to go to the AG,” she said in a text.

Barrett Riley, though, assumed the agreement was an interlocal deal and said that the board there passed it as such. She did not know if the county could enter an agreement with the city without the attorney general having to sign off on it.

Colby Jordan, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Lynn Fitch, said she could not speak to the matter.

The Yazoo agreement, meanwhile, is still in flux. “It has not been approved through the board of supervisors,” Sheriff Jacob Sheriff said. “There were some questions that came up that we didn’t resolve and that’s the holdup right there.”

Among questions, Yazoo officials wanted to know who would transport detainees if they needed medical attention.

Confusion and questions aside, Stokes said the mayor never intended to spend the $500,000 or act on either agreement.

“It’s the old shell game,” he said. “What they call it in the Black neighborhood is ‘trickeration.’ You try to make it seem as though you tried to accomplish what the council put money in the budget for, but at the same time, you’re not trying to do it.

Stokes proposed the idea last year to help the city get a grip on its crime problem. 2020 was the deadliest year on record for Jackson in terms of homicides, a record that it is on track to eclipse in 2021.

The city faces several challenges in dealing with crime, including a lack of jail space at the Hinds County Detention Center.

Hinds County is currently under a federal consent decree, which limits the types and number of detainees that can be housed at the Raymond facility.

“Basically, we don’t house misdemeanor offenders unless it’s for a DUI, domestic violence or for somebody that has been ordered to be jailed by a judge,” Sheriff Lee Vance said. “Those are the only types we house.”

With all housing units up and running, the jail has a maximum capacity of 594 people. Another 120 people can be detained at the Hinds County Work Center. About 515 people were housed at the jail Wednesday afternoon, Vance said.

Meanwhile, the downtown holding facility has been closed on the recommendation of the federal monitor helping enforce decree requirements.

“The (federal) monitor recommended we phase out the downtown facility until adequate repairs and staffing could enable it to be operational again,” Vance said.

Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote said he was unaware that Yazoo County had not approved the agreement.

“We haven’t gotten any feedback from the legal department or the administration that this stuff has not been done and here’s why,” he said. “They’re just hoping it all goes away, I guess. But it’s very disappointing.

“It’s really a systemic problem within city government. It’s not fair to the citizens and the taxpayers who want law enforcement to be there to protect their property and protect their fellow citizens.”

He said the lack of feedback is par for the course for the administration, which kept the council in the dark on other projects, including the Jackson Zoo management negotiations, the EPA order mandating repairs to the city’s water treatment plants.

The council also has limited access to Police Chief James Davis. In March, the mayor notified the council that the chief would only speak to the council once a quarter and that if any information was needed in between those meetings that members should submit a written request for it to the mayor’s office or to the chief directly.

Outgoing Ward Four Councilman De’Keither Stamps said city leaders must be aggressive in their approach to fighting crime and holding people accountable for breaking the law.

“I’m sick of explanations and excuses. I want execution. I want things to get done. And that’s what in Ward 4, what we want,” Stamps said.

Foote continues to question why the city has yet to act on another agreement, one to give the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department $500,000 to provide additional patrols in the city.

The council approved that agreement on March 30. The council voted 5-2 in support of the measure but left it to the city attorney’s office to draw up details.

As of the council’s June 8 meeting, though, no details had been finalized.

City Attorney Monica Allen said part of the problem was the confusion on how the funds would be used. Council President Aaron Banks said the money would go to hiring additional deputies, specifically to patrol Jackson streets. Vance, on the other hand, said the dollars would go toward paying deputies overtime to patrol Jackson once their normal shifts are over.

Allen told the council she had attempted to set up a meeting with the attorney for the sheriff’s department in late May, but that meeting had to be rescheduled.

Some leaders, including District 2 Supervisor David Archie, blamed the mayor for slow rolling on the agreement.

“If we don’t do it very soon, all of us perhaps may need to leave Jackson because we can’t live under the circumstances we’re living under,” he said, in a plea to the mayor. “You can’t go to the grocery store. You can’t go to the gas station. You have to lock your car. We have to do something now, not tomorrow.”

For his part, Lumumba said he was not stalling on the agreement and would sign it once it comes to his desk. The mayor previously voiced his frustration with the Hinds County agreement, saying the funds would be better served going toward the Jackson Police Department.

The mayor was scheduled to speak with WLBT on Wednesday afternoon but had to reschedule for Thursday.

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