Rep. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, confers with Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, during a second day of state agency budget hearings with the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, earlier this year in Jackson, Miss. 

As the first woman at the helm of the House of Representatives’ Judiciary B Committee, Rep. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, leads the influential committee by listening and encouraging deliberation over the often technical bills with criminal justice implications. The committee passed the second-most suffrage bills ever and a hefty human trafficking bill. She also introduced bills aimed at standardizing the state’s approach to handling sexual assault cases and ensuring workplace equity.

Erica Hensley, editor of Mississippi Today’s Inform[H]er newsletter, sat down with Cockerham recently to talk about these issues:

You chaired the Energy Committee previously. What surprised you this year in your Judiciary B leadership role, and where do you want to continue to expand?

When I chaired Energy, there were a few surprises. First of all, because I was a female chairing Energy, a lot of people didn’t realize that I had practiced oil and gas law, and I also teach Louisiana mineral law at MC Law, and so I knew quite a lot about energy.

And then, to get the opportunity for Jud B, especially coming on the heels of criminal justice reform, and the Speaker wanted to work on human trafficking — I also had some concerns about bail reform — and suffrage was really near and dear to me as well. This year what I wanted to do with Jud B was bring the committee in on the process. I have ideas that I think are good, but I also have members who are on the committee who have ideas too. I wanted to utilize them. I wanted feedback from them.

Really, initially, I just had to get in and spend a lot of time reviewing every single bill because my philosophy — even with Energy (Committee) — was that if a member takes the time to go to LSO (legislative services) and get it drafted, it must be something that they have an interest in, so at least let me take the time to read it.

Does the low number of women legislators concern you?

Yes, it concerns me, and there were more (women serving) before when I started. We need women’s perspective on all issues, whether it’s pertaining to a woman or not — and in order to have a balance in both chambers, you would want female representation, just as well as men.

I always try to encourage (young women) on a high school and collegiate level to consider going into politics. This year, one of the pages who was here this last week of session, she came up to me, and she said … ‘I remember you from the class where you came and you spoke to us,’ and said, ‘I think this is something I want to do, and I could see myself being up here and really serving.’ I was very encouraged to know that she listened. … It did resonate, and hopefully more women, more students, whether high school or college, more choir members when you are at your church … all it takes is a word of encouragement — you never know. Once the seed is planted, hopefully it will grow.

You introduced the Sexual Assault Response Act this year. It’s estimated that less than half of sexual assaults get reported, even fewer are prosecuted, and even fewer result in convictions. Why is this act important to represent needs of victims of sexual assault at our universities?

I have begun to hear from parents who were having a few problems or issues without there ever actually being some sort of resolution … It’s just a gut-wrenching feeling when it’s about a child. I actually had two grad students who were absolutely phenomenal to work with on this, and I thank God for them that I had the opportunity to work with them and to hear their stories … It was good to have them working along with me with the legislation, initially the first year I introduced it. (The bill) was more about bringing uniformity but also making sure students were protected (in coming forward).

We have to provide resources for our babies if this does happen, we do — “We are here for you, we are always going to be here for you, and if you decide that you want to continue here, then we are going to make sure every effort is put forward to making sure we fulfill whatever it is that your goal is.” I’m all about the babies … We’ve got to make sure our young men are protected, too, because unfortunately sometimes young men are sexually assaulted. … We pray over them. We know the good Lord is going to take care of them, and we have to have measures in place, so that, when things do happen to them, that we are like Johnny on the spot — “Hey, I’m here for you, I’ve got you.”

Another bill you worked on was about ensuring safe and equitable workplaces. About half the state’s kids are in single family homes, and most of those parents are women in lower-paying jobs. Why is it important to ensure equity for them via a bill like this?

We say, “You need to go to work, and you need to get a job.” But, yet, when we do go out and get jobs, unfortunately when their child gets sick or if they have to take off time to have the child, unfortunately, sometimes, as you and I know, there are repercussions to that. That’s why this bill is so important, and it came at the impetus of Cassandra Welchlin of Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable.

Everybody, I believe, has a dream and a goal, and mine isn’t going to be the same as yours and yours isn’t going to be the same as mine — but guess what, it’s not supposed to be by design. But I do believe we have to help each other achieve it, and that’s what this bill is doing. My hat’s off to the women who go out every day and they’re supporting their family, they’re putting food on the table, they’re making sure that the homework is done, they’re making sure that the children are healthy — if not, they’re trying to get them to the doctor. That’s a lot — and at the same time, you’re going to work — it’s a lot. They need this extra (support) to do what we are already doing. I mean, we make it look easy — but we’ve got to support each other.

Both bills died in committee. What will it take in the Legislature to get them out?

I don’t know, but, just because it died, it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop. I’m just going to work harder. I think bills dying are just God’s way of saying, “You know what, you just have to work a little bit harder.” So that’s what we’ll do.

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Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.