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On the 17th floor of the Walter Sillers building, those who visit a particular room overlooking downtown Jackson hear a repetitive dinging noise. According to Jay Houston, the noise occurs every time someone posts in an online chat room where children are being exploited.
Houston is assistant director of the Cyber Crime Division and commander of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Both fall under the purview of the state attorney general’s office and investigate crimes committed against children on computers and the internet.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Jim Hood spoke with reporters at a press conference called to highlight the importance of the Cyber Crime Division, which he warned may cease to exist if legislators slash the budget for the attorney general’s office in the upcoming special session.
The Mississippi Legislature will return to the Capitol June 5 to finalize the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. Disagreement between legislative leaders during the regular session left the Mississippi Department of Transportation, state aid roads, and attorney general’s office unfunded.
Hood’s office, like nearly every other state agency, has seen budget cuts in recent fiscal years. Gov. Phil Bryant has made four mid-year budget cuts since the fiscal year began in July 2016 to offset lower-than-projected revenue collections, which caused most agencies to receive budget cuts during the appropriations process for the upcoming fiscal year.
At the press conference, Hood told reporters his office needs $4 million more than what his office would have received had the appropriation for his office been approved during the regular session. The attorney general’s office received a $33 million appropriation in fiscal year 2017; the bill that died would have dropped that figure to $22.9 million for fiscal year 2018.
Those additional funds would keep the Cyber Crime Division in operation, as well as provide funding for children’s advocacy centers, crime victim compensation, law enforcement and firefighter disability benefits, and various training programs provided by the attorney general’s office, he said.
“They (legislators) don’t really understand how important these programs are to the daily life of Mississippians out there,” Hood said. “And what we’re doing is we’re calling on citizens to contact their legislators before Monday’s special legislative session and ask them to replace, put back that four million dollars that our office desperately needs to continue to provide these services to victims, law enforcement and all this list of programs that have been funded before the Legislature diverted the money.
Most of the budget is set, meaning there are few options for the Legislature to come up with additional funds for Hood’s office. The state could have earned additional revenue through options such as expanding Medicaid, passing a lottery, approving an internet sales tax or raising the fuel tax, Hood said, but none of those options materialized into law during the regular session.
“There were ways to generate revenue to pay for these things, there just was not the guts do actually do it,” he said.
The Cyber Crime Division is the only statewide digital forensics laboratory; more than 7,000 digital devices have been tested for evidence in criminal investigations since Hood took office in 2004, according to a statement from his office. The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force is a part of the division and focuses on arresting and identifying child predators.
Jay Houston showed reporters the facility during a tour on Wednesday, and he noted the room where computers are used by investigators to conduct undercover investigations. In the room where computer monitors dinged at irregular intervals, task force and cyber crime employees have conversations with potential child predators to collect evidence and grounds for arrests. Other rooms were filled with chip readers and other technology to conduct forensic audits to find child pornography and other evidence.
Both the task force and Cyber Crime Division as a whole also provide educational training to the public and computer forensics training to local district attorneys and law enforcement offices across the state, the statement said.
“The work of this division cannot fall victim to our state Legislature’s politically motivated budget cuts,” Hood said in the statement.