Democratic DA candidates debate approaches to criminal justice reform

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 29, 2022 1:25 PM CT | Published: April 29, 2022 12:54 PM CT

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If there’s one thing on which the three Democratic candidates for District Attorney agree, it’s that the Shelby County criminal justice system needs reform.

Steve Mulroy, Linda Harris and Janika White are contending for the Democratic nomination in the May 3 primary to challenge District Attorney General Amy Weirich, a Republican, in the August general election. Weirich is unopposed in the primary. 

The three Democratic contenders participated in a candidate forum at Christ Missionary Baptist Church in South Memphis Thursday night, April 28. Weirich was invited but did not attend. 


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“I don’t think there’s really all that much disagreement here about the need for change in our criminal justice system,” Mulroy said during closing arguments. “We also need to think about other things, like who is best equipped to take Weirich on in August and actually win.”

Before those closing arguments, everyone agreed they wanted Weirich out of office and that the DA’s office needs more diversity, needs to lighten up on the prosecution of nonviolent offenders and that children do not need to be charged as adults in crimes, as is often the case. 

About 30 to 40 people in the audience listened to each candidates’ arguments, moderated by Kontji Anthony and Katherine Burgess.

The moderators asked candidates a series of questions regarding their stances on issues pertaining to criminal justice and the DA position. 

All candidates agreed that violent crime is up and that what the incumbent has been doing has not been working. 

“We are number one in the state in Shelby County for prosecutorial misconduct and ethical violations, both by the office generally and by our incumbent … that leads to overturned convictions,” Mulroy said.

“We are number one in the state for the death penalty. We’re number one in the state per transfer of juvenile defendants to adult court, 95% of whom are African American. We are number one in the state for racially disproportionate outcomes throughout the entire system.”

Earlier in April, Mulroy said only about 30% of the employees in the DA’s office are people of color and 10% of the prosecutors in the DA’s office are Black. He reiterated these data points during Thursday’s debate. 

Weirich disputed Mulroy’s numbers when he released them initially.


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“The data Professor Mulroy provided is not accurate,” Weirich said in a statement at the time, “but that’s not surprising since his entire campaign is based on false data and dangerous ideas like releasing more criminals from jail.” 

Mulroy, a law professor and former civil rights lawyer, defense lawyer and prosecutor, also said the juvenile court was under federal monitoring for civil rights violations and that it ended only because President Donald Trump’s administration put an end to the oversight. 

Mulroy said he does not support truth in sentencing and that instead of prosecuting people for nonviolent crimes, the DA’s office should “refocus” on violent crimes. 

“We have to more robustly explore alternatives to regular incarceration for nonviolent offenses so that we can focus more on violent crime,” Mulroy said. “I also think there are some innovative programs like the Memphis Allies program that Youth Villages is doing right now (that is) just beginning.”

The Memphis Allies program is a $60 million initiative that aims to reduce gun violence in Memphis by 30% in the next four years through services like mental health or substance abuse counseling.

He said the DA’s office should also assess each case individually to determine what the best prosecutorial action is for that person. Factors that need to be considered, he said, include criminal history, level of offense, effect on the community and individual characteristics. 

He said some offenses, like drug offenses, should be looked at as a “public health problem, not a ‘lock ‘em up’ problem.’” 

White, a federal defense lawyer, said she wants to “look at criminal justice from a new lens.”

White said there are only 13 assistant district attorneys who are people of color in an office of about 110 prosecutors. She said that the DA’s office needs more diversity and that it needs to start from the top. 

“It is time for someone who is competent in the community and able to build the bridges necessary for us to be able to start being just as tough on crime prevention as we’ve been on prosecuting crime,” White said. 


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When asked what programs she would implement, White said she would look at implementing “prosecution plus,” which is a holistic approach that ensures people are not disenfranchised through multiple felonies and provides alternative resources instead.

She also said she wants to bring in community prosecutors, something she has seen implemented in Dallas that involves having a prosecutor work with neighborhood leaders to connect residents to resources. 

“When we start talking about root causes of crime, one of the major causes is, of course, poverty, and then the breakdown of the family structure because we have people growing up with parents who have been incarcerated or disenfranchised, because they’ve been convicted of a felony,” White said. “And now, it inhibits their ability to make a living. So we have to reach this from a holistic perspective.”

She said it is important to have a person in office who will not create disparities in the criminal justice system and who will charge people equally as well as give them equal plea deals and sentences.

She also said she believes people should not be criminalized for minor offenses such as marijuana possession, a belief shared by the other candidates. Also shared by opponents is opposition to the relaxed gun laws in Tennessee. 

Harris, a former federal prosecutor of 15 years, considers the district attorney to be the “gatekeeper” to the criminal justice system. She emphasized her experience in the federal courts, stating she had hundreds of criminal law cases logged on a public access site for federal court documents and said her opponents had far fewer cases.

Harris, who also worked as a police officer and defense lawyer in civil and state court, said she believes, due to her experience, she could look at issues from every angle. 

“I am about reduction of crime,” she said. “I am about reforming the criminal justice system. I am about being accountable to each and every one of you.”


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Harris said she will put an emphasis on practicing restorative justice, which is a criminal justice approach in which one of the responses to a crime is to organize a mediation between the victim and the offender and sometimes with representatives of the community. 

She believes restorative justice is necessary to prevent youth from entering a “school-to-jailhouse pipeline” or a lifetime of recidivism. 

She has worked as a mediator for the Mid-South Community Justice and Mediation Center and said she has been studying how restorative practices could be implemented for years, such as with re-entry circles and peer mediation.

“I talk to the people who have been incarcerated,” she said. “You have to listen to them because they come in with trauma, and their children have trauma … It is so crucial to do collaboration, coordination — you have to get community buy-in and participation. And you have to leverage resources.”

At the end of the forum, Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City and host of the event, encouraged the audience to vote.

“They’re fighting for the city. They’re fighting for this community,” Spickler said. “I hope you heard that tonight. And I hope you heard something that will help you make your decision. And the only call to action I have for you is to vote.”

Click here for more information on Tuesday’s primary elections. 

Topics

Shelby County District Attorney District Attorney Forum Steve Mulroy Linda Harris Janika White
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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