The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in federal court over the state’s voter disenfranchisement laws. From left: Attorneys Jonathan Youngwood and Jody Owens with plaintiffs Dennis Hopkins, Walter Kuhn and Byron Coleman in Jackson.

Civil rights attorney Jody Owens II will seek election as the next Hinds County District Attorney.

Owens, who heads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi office, has overseen litigation aimed at reforming county and state juvenile justice, education, mental health and prison systems for much of the last decade. He confirmed to Mississippi Today that he has qualified to run as a Democrat.

“Not being a career prosecutor is a benefit to the office because I’ve been involved in the criminal justice system on both sides at larger levels,” Owens said.

“I think I approach it from a different (perspective) where the system has to work for everyone. We have to ensure the victims of crime and the defendants both have an efficient criminal justice system that will allow everyone to have their day in court.”

Owens, a member of a prominent family of lawyers, said that he aims to address a rise in violent crime across Hinds County, as well as incorporate “community and civic engagement” in ensuring a transparent office.

The announcement comes a week after current DA Robert Shuler Smith declared a bid for governor.

Smith, a Democrat whose last re-election campaign in 2015 was backed by a political action committee funded by the billionaire George Soros, has held the seat since 2007.

Last week, Smith declared a Democratic primary challenge in the governor’s race against Attorney General Jim Hood, whose office has failed to land several felony and misdemeanor convictions against Smith in the last three years.

Disputes between Smith and circuit court Judge Tomie Green in recent months have highlighted problems with the county’s criminal justice system, including courts and jails. These problems include backlogged dockets and how long people wait in jail before trials and even before indictments.

The county has been under a federal consent decree to reform its jails and juvenile detention center since 2016.

Owens said that on the campaign trail, he will also explore how the district attorney’s office can best handle issues of juvenile incarceration and the effects of drugs in communities.

The deadline for statewide, district and county candidates to qualify for this year’s election is March 1. As of last week, no Republican challengers had filed to run for Smith’s seat.

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.