As the sun began to lower behind the buildings on Commerce Street, seven 16th Circuit Court judge candidates filled West Point City Hall Thursday evening to speak to a crowd of nearly 50 prospective voters.
In a forum organized by the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, One Voice and four area chapters of the NAACP, the constituents of Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee and Oktibbeha counties heard from the judges they will vote for on Nov. 8.
Felony cases, civil lawsuits and various appeals are heard in circuit courts. The judges that serve in circuit courts serve in non-partisan roles for four years.
The seven candidates spoke on issues such as courtroom management, incarceration rates and criminal justice debt.
In the 16th Circuit Court, there are three places. Place 1 is elected from Lowndes County, Place 2 from Oktibbeha County, and Place 3 from Clay and Noxubee counties. However, all three judges preside over cases throughout the circuit.
The sitting Place 2 and Place 3 judges, Lee Howard IV and Lee Coleman, are retiring. Place 1 Judge Jim Kitchens is the only incumbent in the race.
The Place 2 candidate to replace Howard is the only candidate running unopposed, and it is Howard’s son, Lee Howard V.
Residents in the four counties ca vote on each place.
Place 1 race
Place 1 will have two options on the ballot in November — Kitchens or Chuck Easley.
Kitchens, who spoke first, has served as a circuit judge for the last 20 years. He spoke about keeping up with cases to help with court case backlogs and ways to ensure public safety through long criminal sentences.
Kitchens said he has tried cases out of term and utilizes pretrial diversion and drug court for nonviolent offenders, and he plans to continue that if re-elected. However, when it comes to violent crime, Kitchens said sentencing needs to be tough to serve as a deterrent.
“The way I’ve always looked at things is there are some crimes that are ‘community-killers,’” Kitchens said. “You get a bunch of armed robberies, a bunch of house burglaries, a bunch of shootings — your town’s going to die because people are going to move. It’s what’s happening in Columbus. … On those violent crimes that are community-killers, I’m sorry, you’ve got to be tough on them. If you don’t, you’re going to continue to have that problem. On nonviolent offenses that aren’t community-killing, you work with them.”
Easley comes to the race with Mississippi Supreme Court experience, and he’s been a Columbus-based lawyer for 41 years. In Easley’s opening remarks, he cited a Clarion-Ledger article that says Mississippi has the worst incarceration rate in the world.
“I don’t think the people in Lowndes County or any of the four counties in the district are safe,” Easley said. “All of y’all know what’s going on with all the shooting and all of the murder. Something needs to be done. The court system isn’t working. … Per capita, Mississippi has more prisoners in the system than any other state in the county, but it’s worse than that. We have more per capita — we’re worse than Russia. We’re worse than China.”
Easley agreed with Kitchens’ stance on violent crime sentencing and said people need to have faith in the circuit court.
“You cannot be easy on violent people,” Easley said. “… Columbus is nothing but a warzone.”
Howard V served as the first ever law clerk for the circuit court judge in Rankin and Madison counties, and he works for the district attorney for the Fifth Circuit District which serves Attala, Carroll, Choctaw, Grenada, Montgomery, Webster and Winston counties.
Howard said he plans to work with district attorneys to help ease the backlog of cases within the district, and when it comes to violent crime sentencing he will look at facts and circumstances before deciding on a case.
“I can’t tell you what I’m going to do on cases,” Howard said. “I can tell you that as an assistant DA for the last 11 years, each case has its own set of facts and circumstances. … One set of facts and circumstances (for example) for one armed robber might impose a harsher sentence due to the facts and circumstances for that case.”
The most contested race is Place 3, representing Clay and Noxubee counties, where three candidates are vying for the judge seat. Michelle Easterling, Trina Davidson Brooks, Mark Cliett and Bennie Jones Jr. are running for that open seat.
Easterling is currently the Clay County prosecuting attorney and has been in that role since 2013, and she has been a lawyer in the Golden Triangle for 24 years. She said as judge she would like to sit down with other judges and county supervisors to create more public defender positions.
Easterling said she believes adult leaders in the community need to step up to help teach youth, and judges need to be more harsh on sentencing to deter more violent crime from happening.
“I think we have youth that don’t respect law enforcement or don’t appreciate what their roles are in the community,” Easterling said. “I think we have to do more to educate our youth on what is expected of them, and we’ve got to do more to help them.”
Brooks touts nearly 10 years of prosecutorial experience, and she currently serves as an assistant DA in the 16th Circuit District.
Brooks spoke about the need for pretrial diversion programs, drug court and starting a mental health court. She said there is a need to educate youth on the consequences of using a gun.
“One thing we have to do is educate our young people about the consequences of picking up a gun and using it,” Brooks said. “Because if you do and you use it, you could get charged with a violent crime and end up on my docket, and by the time you get there, it’s too late at that point. … A lot of them don’t understand our criminal statutes, they don’t understand that from 13 to 18 they could be charged as an adult if they use a gun or commit a crime that carries a life sentence.”
Cliett has 27 years of experience in law including six years as the Clay County public defender and 10 years as the West Point municipal judge.
He said violent crime is affecting everyone, and there are two ways to address it. There is a short-term solution of long and harsh sentences paired with a long term solution of education.
“I think for the short-term you have to (impose harsh sentences) if nothing else as a deterrent,” Cliett said. “With regard to the long term answer, I think you’ve got to educate young people. I served for six years as a public defender, and I did a lot of work with youth groups. That was one of the main things I did when I met with my clients. I said, ‘Look, if you were an adult this would be a felony. This would carry this much time in prison. You’ve got to stop being in the system.’ … I think in the long term it needs to be something where everyone works together to educate our young people.”
Jones has practiced law for more than 35 years and has served in various roles such as a municipal court judge in Maben and West Point. At the forum Jones spoke on courtroom management, long sentencing and public safety.
The candidate said he would like to implement youth education programs to deter youth from picking up a gun.
“Money is often diverted to some pet project of some legislator rather than put into programs for our youth to let our youth know that it’s not OK to pick up a gun and just shoot somebody,” Jones said. “It’s one of those things that has to do with awareness. Our youth must be aware of the consequences of their actions. As long as you have a black market of firearms that is not controlled by local authorities, we’re going to continue to have problems.”
Absentee ballots will be available beginning Sept. 24 at the circuit clerk’s office. The deadline to register to vote for circuit court judges is Oct. 10, and election day will be Nov. 8.
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