Q&A with DA candidate Steve Mulroy

By , Daily Memphian Published: July 25, 2022 4:00 AM CT
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Steve Mulroy is the Democratic nominee for District Attorney General. He faces Republican incumbent Amy Weirich in the Aug. 4 general election.


Q&A with DA incumbent Amy Weirich


Mulroy is a law professor at the University of Memphis and a former Shelby County commissioner, civil rights lawyer, defense lawyer and prosecutor.

Abortion prosecution

Daily Memphian: When Roe v. Wade was overturned, a 30-day trigger law went into effect in Tennessee that greatly limits the ability to get a legal abortion. And a heartbeat bill has already taken effect, making illegal abortions after six weeks or when a heartbeat is present. How would you handle prosecuting abortion cases if law enforcement brought them to you? What factors would you look at?


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Steve Mulroy: It’s difficult to say, in the abstract. I mean, it is definitely the case that it would be a very low priority for me. So I think as a policy matter, there are problems with using the criminal justice system to handle matters of reproductive choice. Prosecutors should never say never, in large part because there’s a Tennessee law that would allow for the appointment of an independent prosecutor and basically stripping jurisdiction over that class of offenses away from the DA. 


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But also just as a general prudential matter, DAs should not be in the habit of overruling things or ruling things out forever in the abstract. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine situations that would warrant it. I mean, certainly, if the procedures were endangering the health of the mother, that might be such a situation. I’m sure there might be others as well. But I do know this. I know that Ms. Weirich and I would handle such situations very differently, because she has declined to mention anything even about it being a low priority.

And we do have her record of aggressively prosecuting the fetal assault law between 2014 and 2016, when she was responsible for one out of four of every fetal assault prosecution in the state. And when, even after testimony of public health experts talking about what a public health disaster the law was, she still testified before the legislature for its extension, a position so extreme that even the Republican-controlled legislature didn’t go that far.

‘Truth in sentencing’

On July 1, a “truth in sentencing” law kicked in, eliminating the possibility of parole for certain crimes, such as attempted first-degree murder or carjacking. Does this affect how you will prosecute these crimes? What effect do you anticipate this new law will have on our jails? Our city?

I think whenever a prosecutor makes a charging decision, they have to consider what sentence could result and that includes mandatory sentences under applicable law. If I thought that particular type of charge as a result of “truth in sentencing” might lead to an overly harsh sentence, then I would have to consider proceeding under a lesser charge. But again, it would depend on the facts and the circumstances. But one of the advantages of the broad discretion that district attorneys have is that they can take all those circumstances into account and make their initial charging decision and no one can second guess that charging decision. 


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Now, as for the effect of the law on the jails and prisons, I think we know what it is. The prison budget is going to balloon just like it did a few decades ago when we tried the same thing, and it didn’t help with crime. The budget estimates are that it’ll be $50 million more every year on prisons as a result of this law. And it’s a shame, because it’s not a good use of our money to be building prison after prison after prison. If we took half that money and put it into youth intervention programs on the front end and reentry programs on the back end, we would do a better job of controlling crime and save taxpayer money in the process.


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I stand with Gov. Bill Lee, who had the same concern and declined to sign the “truth in sentencing” bill. And I side with the American conservative, which has taken a similar position. So on this particular issue, Ms. Weirich is to the right of both Gov. Bill Lee and the American Conservative Union, which to my mind, demonstrates that she is not right for Shelby County.

Priorities

What is the most important crime issue that needs to be addressed in Shelby County?

We’ve got to get violent crime under control. I mean, period, full stop, that has got to be our number one unconditional priority. Violent crime was actually going down in the three years before the current incumbent took office and has been rising steadily over the last decade ever since – almost every year to the point where we’re not just worse than the state. We’re the worst, nationally, per capita in terms of violent crime. It’s out of control. And it is not only hurting the victims, it’s a ripple effect throughout the entire community. It also makes it harder for us to recruit investments and jobs and relocation into our area. And we’ve got to get it under control.

Juvenile transfers

There’s a high population of African American juveniles who have been affected by the criminal justice system. What would you do to reduce the number of juveniles, particularly African American youth, who are brought into the criminal justice system? What would be your criteria for those who are transferred?

The first thing I would do is set up some internal procedures to require that every petition for transfer would have to be approved either by me or a high-level supervisor – to get that out of control transfer rate back under control. Currently, we do more adult transfers in one county than all the Tennessee counties combined. And 95% of them are Black, a situation which an independent federal court monitor called “a toxic combination for African American youth.” So we would review the requests for transfer. And we would create a strong presumption against transfer. Absent some very, very severe circumstances, adult transfer needs to be a last resort. And right now, it’s a first instinct. 


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As to when we would transfer, obviously, there are going to be some situations where we have no choice but to transfer to adult court. And I think that would be a combination of circumstances where the defendant was already close to the age of 18, the crime itself was extremely serious and there was a lengthy record of violent crime, suggesting that the defendant was incorrigible – also an absence of any indication that there were specific mental health issues or substance abuse issues which possibly could be addressed short of incarceration and adult prison. You get to do that on a case-by-case basis, considering all the factors I just mentioned, but it would be the rare case, indeed, if I were the DA. 

And I think that’s the way it was designed to be. Juvenile court was set up precisely because young people have less of an ability to do impulse control, they have less of a full appreciation for the consequences of their actions. And they’re also more malleable, meaning that they’re more rehabilitatable. Whenever we do an adult transfer, we’re essentially giving up on rehabilitation. We’re saying this person is a lost cause. And the data shows that when we send them to an adult prison, not only are they at greater risk of sexual assault and suicide, they’re more likely to reoffend when they come out. So it isn’t really making us safer.

Diversity in the District Attorney’s office

There have been questions about diversity in the district attorney’s office. If you are elected, what steps will you take to address this? 

Affirmative recruitment. You can advertise in publications that are geared towards a more diverse readership. You can do outreach through organizations like the National Bar Association and other similar organizations to recruit a more diverse group of people to be prosecutors. You can let the word go forth publicly that, you know, we’re particularly looking for that. And I’m not talking about any kind of rigid quota. I’m not saying that diversity would be the only criterion that we would use. But I know from my past experience on the law school faculty that with the right kind of outreach and the right kind of emphasis on diversity, you can improve things.


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There are over 400 or 500 members in the local Black Bar Association, the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the NBA, just here alone in Memphis. Certainly, we should be able to find another 15 or so lawyers of diverse backgrounds that would be qualified, especially if we recruit from outside Shelby County. I think many people would be willing to relocate if they thought they would be part of a new progressive reform attempt. And if you did that, that alone would double the diversity as it stands right now.


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My understanding is that there are currently a dozen vacancies right now. And so I think it’s possible to increase the diversity significantly without significant layoffs. And then, of course, this constant attrition, people are constantly leaving the office for whatever reason, and new hiring positions become available. So I think there’s a way to do it without any sort of mass firing or anything.

No-camping law

The expansion of the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 was recently passed and became effective July 1, making it a felony punishable to six years in prison to camp on any local public property. If someone were arrested for this by law enforcement, how would you deal with this case?

This would be another example of a type of law that would be a low priority for me. It’s a policy matter I have serious reservations about. It seems to have been originally motivated as retaliation for some protests that occurred at Legislative Plaza in Nashville, which is a strike against it, in my view.


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It also ends up basically criminalizing homelessness. Just as I don’t think the criminal justice system is the right way to deal with the issue of reproductive choice, I don’t think it’s the best tool to use for the problem of homelessness. And that’s not to say I would never prosecute under the law. There’s always going to be situations that are outlier situations. I’m just saying that it would be a low priority for me.

Criminal justice reform

What are some criminal justice reforms you plan to put in place?

We need to fix our broken bail system. We need to get away from the status quo where hundreds and hundreds of people languish behind bars at 201 Poplar, who haven’t been convicted of any crime, often nonviolent offenses, for no other reason than they can’t afford cash bail. When you do juvenile justice reform, that may include inviting the Department of Justice back for consultation and monitoring. We need to make more robust use of alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenses. We need to establish a conviction review unit like they have in Nashville. We should stop opposing DNA testing post-conviction in cases. 


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Restorative justice, we should do that as well. What passes for restorative justice here in Shelby County, which has only been in effect for the last two years, is really just window dressing. It’s frittering around the edges. Eighty-eight cases over two years out of 200,000 cases every year total. We need to hire trained facilitators. And we need to do a broader, more devoted job of using restorative justice, particularly in property cases and cases involving juveniles, but ultimately, perhaps in many of the types of cases as well.

Bail setting system

What needs to change in the bail setting system? 

It would take a change in policy by a reform-minded district attorney so that the request for high bail, or the request for pretrial detention in the first place, isn’t made in a lot of cases where it’s currently made. Putting aside very serious and violent offenses, the strong presumption should be in favor of pretrial release, absent specific evidence that a particular defendant is either a flight risk or danger to the community.

I think a DA could issue regulations and guidelines along those lines, in terms of what a proper time is. Remember that these are people who have not been convicted of any crime. A large percentage of them will ultimately be released without any conviction at all, and many of them are there simply because they can’t afford cash bail. So really, no unnecessary pretrial detention is justified. It should only be used when we have serious reason to think that the person is either a flight risk or a danger to the community. 


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In terms of an overall time, I have heard of cases where people have been held pretrial for as long as seven years. Two, three years is not at all uncommon. Over 25% of the people there at 201 Poplar are being held there for more than a year and a half. I think all those lengths of time are unacceptable. I think the amount of time that you spend pretrial, awaiting for your day in court, not having been convicted of a crime, should be measured in months and not years.

Gun crime

Gun crime is also up. For 2021, it increased 40% from 2019. What needs to happen to reduce this in Shelby County? Why has it gotten so bad?

I’m sure the incumbent is going to try to blame the pandemic. But I don’t really think that’s very persuasive, given that the increase had started before the pandemic and continued after the pandemic. A 40% rise in violent crime over someone’s tenure is pretty significant. The number of homicides have tripled. Clearly it’s something we all need to be concerned about. And while I will not try to blame any one person or official for that, or really identify any one single cause, this is a complex problem. There are probably multiple causes. I do think it demonstrates that what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working, and there’s a real need for change, hence my campaign.

Violent crimes

Certain crimes, such as murders and aggravated assaults, have increased since 2011. What factors would you say have played into that increase? What are your plans for reversing this trend?

The main drivers are poverty and the flood of guns into Memphis and Shelby County, in part fueled by the state legislature that keeps loosening safety restrictions on access to guns. I think the pandemic can be overstated as a factor because that overall trend of increase in violent crime started well before the pandemic, and it has continued after the pandemic has been over. 


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In terms of what we would do about it, I think there are three broad categories of things to do. First is to refocus on violent crime in a way that we haven’t been, to stop wasting our time with petty prosecutions like marijuana possession, being late on fines and fees, prosecuting people like Pam Moses for attempting to register to vote and focus more on what we really have to focus on like … carjacking, homicides, any kind of shooting, domestic assault, things of that nature. Refocus is one thing. 

Second thing is to invest more heavily and make greater use of programs like Youth Villages’ Memphis Allies, about which we’ve seen some press lately. And under that program, people who have themselves been through the system are used to recruit people who are at risk of recidivism, especially for violent offenses, gun offenses, and are brought into a year-long program where small groups of facilitators and clinicians work with small groups of subjects.

There’s job training, assistance in finding housing. If substance abuse is the issue, they have counseling for that. If mental health issues are present, they have counseling for that. And at the end of the year program, they have realistic alternatives to life on the street, which is for some of them the only life that they’ve ever known. And programs like this have been shown to reduce gun violence – not right away, but if you give it time – in places like Chicago and Stockton, California, and Oakland, California. I think we need to do more like that. 


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And then third, and finally, when you do all the reforms, when you do a conviction review unit, ending opposition to DNA testing, fixing a broken bail system, juvenile court reform, restorative justice, basically, doing everything you can to end the racial disproportionalities that we see throughout the system — when you do those things, you can restore public confidence in the fairness of the system. That confidence is lacking right now, as the Memphis and Shelby Crime Commission’s own polling data shows, particularly among the African American community.

If you can do those things and restore public confidence in the fairness of the system, the community will begin to cooperate with law enforcement in a way that they haven’t in recent years. That means providing tips, serving as witnesses reporting crimes. And that truly, truly is the main way that we’re going to bend the curve on violent crime, which is absolutely out of control right now.

Low-level offenses

How will you prosecute nonviolent crimes, such as theft or marijuana possession? Should they result in prison time?

Marijuana prosecution, I think, in many cases, we shouldn’t be prosecuting them at all. And when we do prosecute them, we should make good use of diversion and allow community service, and where indicated treatment, things of that nature. Similarly, with fines and fees, when you’re late for fines and fees, a lot of times, we’re just criminalizing poverty. So, a lot of times, the answer may be not to prosecute in the first place.

Racial disparities in drug law enforcement

Studies show that there are disparities in drug law enforcement, despite the fact that white and Black people use and sell drugs at the same rate. What would you do to minimize these disparities?

When I was in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, I had a supervisor who said, ‘If you want to improve something, you should measure it.’ I think we need to do a better job of measuring cases, investigations, dispositions, including by race, and keeping track of it by race, so that we have data. And that data should be made transparent to the public, which includes watchdog groups and journalists, and victims rights groups and everybody.


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I would contemplate a dashboard on the DA’s website, as they have in some of the other DA’s offices around the country, where people could see how we are doing. Are the racial disproportionalities growing? Or are they decreasing? Or are they staying the same? And then ask the community to hold us accountable. I think that’s the best way to do it. Another thing, of course, would to be increase the diversity of the prosecutors. In addition to diversity on the staff, I would add implicit bias training to the staff to help with the racial disproportionalities, as well as measuring it with the data that I mentioned.

Outside changes

What are some changes, beyond the DA’s role, that you feel need to be instituted to effectively reduce crime in Memphis?

We need more police. We need to significantly increase the number of police, and we need to pay them better. We need to give them better benefits. And we need to train them better. The better pay and benefits will help with recruitment, which we know is an issue. Having more police is an issue where I sometimes part company with maybe some of the more progressive elements of my own party. But I think you should follow the data wherever it leads, and the data pretty conclusively shows that where you increase the number of police, crime goes down. And we desperately, desperately need to bring crime down.


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Now, training them better. That’s the other side. I would favor more de-escalation training to avoid excessive force. I would favor more implicit bias training to avoid racial profiling. And I would favor better Fourth Amendment search and seizure training to make sure that people’s privacy rights aren’t being regularly violated. 

State laws

What state laws do you think should go into effect or what will you push for as far as legislation to help reduce crime in our city?

Medical marijuana would be one thing. Maybe decriminalizing marijuana should also be considered. I think those would be some legislative changes that I would favor. In some cities, marijuana possession is treated like a parking ticket. You get a citation, you pay a fine, but it isn’t part of your criminal record. There’s no threat of prison time or jail time. And it’s not the kind of thing that you’re going to have to report when you apply for a job on an application. So that will be one example.


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I would favor the repeal of “truth in sentencing,” for the reasons that I discussed earlier. There’s no shortage of reforms, including reforming our bail system that ought to be considered. But we have to be realistic. The General Assembly may be of a different mind on a lot of these issues, but minds can be changed.

Additions

Anything you’d like to add?

I think one thing which gets overlooked is we need to do a better job of considering the immigration consequences of charging decisions. Sometimes, even unintentionally, the way a prosecutor charges something can have really profound immigration consequences leading up to deportation.

And sometimes, if a non-citizen commits an offense, they definitely deserve to be punished. But they don’t necessarily deserve to be ripped away from their family forever. So I think hiring people who understand immigration law and can deal with that is something that doesn’t get enough attention. 

Topics

Steve Mulroy 2022 district attorney race
Julia Baker

Julia Baker

Julia Baker covers criminal justice for The Daily Memphian. A lifelong Memphian, Julia graduated from the University of Memphis in 2021. Other publications and organizations she has written for include Chalkbeat, Memphis Flyer, Memphis Parent magazine and Memphis magazine.


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