How to Run Against a Tough-on-Crime DA—and Win

How reformer Scott Colom unseated an incumbent with 25 harsh years on the job.

Prosecutor Scott Colom.
Scott Colom.

Courtesy of the Commercial Dispatch, Columbus, Mississippi

District attorneys and the prosecutors who work for them are the most powerful actors in the American criminal justice system. They enjoy immense latitude in deciding what crimes to charge people with and how much prison time to push for. And yet their role in the growth of the country’s prison population, which went from less than 200,000 in 1972 to 1.5 million today, often goes unacknowledged as policymakers in Washington discuss the need for criminal justice reform.

One possible reason for this is that the prospect of changing prosecutor behavior—getting them to charge fewer people with felonies and send fewer people to prison for long periods of time—is daunting for reformers to contemplate. Because district attorneys are locally elected, they operate with a large degree of independence; the only real outside pressure they face comes from voters, who have historically demanded that candidates run and deliver on maximally “tough on crime” platforms. Moreover, it is rare for a district attorney election to even be competitive: Because so many voters don’t know or care who the district attorney in their county is, incumbents usually stay in office for years and years.

Not always, though. On Nov. 3, the voters of Mississippi’s 16th District delivered a stinging defeat to their long-serving district attorney, Forrest Allgood, and turned over his office to a 32-year-old reformer named Scott Colom. Allgood, a 61-year-old who ran in the election as an independent, had been the chief prosecutor for the 16th District—which includes four separate counties, with a combined population of about 400,000—for more than 25 years. In that time he has become known as a mercilessly aggressive prosecutor, as well as a dedicated ally of discredited medical experts whose testimony he relied on to win convictions in multiple cases. Radley Balko of the Washington Post recently called him “one of America’s worst prosecutors,” citing a record that included the murder conviction of a man who was eventually exonerated after serving more than 15 years in prison.

Allgood’s challenger, a Democrat, ran on a platform that would have been unthinkable in an earlier era: Though Colom promised voters he would be tough on violent criminals, he was unabashed in extolling his belief that the criminal justice system punishes too many young people too harshly, and too often incarcerates people with drug problems when they ought to be sent into treatment. 

I called Colom this week and talked to him about why he thinks he was able to beat Allgood, how he’ll do the job differently, and what his victory says about how public opinion on criminal justice has shifted. Our conversation, in which Colom spoke candidly about the huge influence prosecutors have and the role they’ve played in creating the problem of mass incarceration, has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Allgood did not respond to requests for an interview.

Tell me why you decided to run against Forrest Allgood.

My opponent had been district attorney a long time. And when he started, there was a movement, with the war on drugs, that said the best approach was to basically lock up everybody for as long as possible. It wasn’t an approach that was unique to him. This was the nation’s approach. You look at Richard Nixon, you look at Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush—the approach was, be tough on drug users. And that’s why we had the explosion in the prison population that we saw from 1970 to now.

My feeling, as an attorney watching the results of that approach, having high school classmates who got involved in the criminal justice system, looking at the larger trends in our states and in the country, I thought that approach was not working, and that there has to be a better way to deal with drug use in our country. It was my opinion that we needed a new district attorney to really implement that.

What role did district attorneys play in carrying out the war on drugs?

A big role. The biggest role. Because the prosecutor has so much discretion when it comes to sentencing recommendations, when it comes to charging. And what happened is most district attorneys just started running on being tough on crime. If you go back to the literature, you go back to the campaign commercials, the speeches, it was all, “I’m gonna be tough, I’m gonna be tough, I’m gonna be tough.” Everybody was out-toughing each other. And the main way that slogan manifested itself was that district attorneys sent people to jail for long periods of time, because that was how you proved how tough you were.

When we talk about the explosion in the incarceration rate, [district attorneys were] a big part of that. Because there’s a lot of discretion that district attorneys and judges have when it comes to sentencing. People talk about these mandatory minimums—and some of those laws that were passed, certainly some of those were problematic. But in Mississippi, we didn’t have mandatory minimums, what we had was discretion to give someone convicted of cocaine possession zero to 30 years for a first-time offense. Zero to 30 years! That was [the range] that was available to district attorneys at one point. That’s too much discretion.

How would you say Allgood and his generation of prosecutors have used their discretion, and how are you going to do it differently?

Well I think he and other prosecutors from that generation approached it with the belief that the way to keep a community safe was to lock up every drug user for long periods of time. And it just didn’t work. We did have a decline in violence in this country, but if you do any research on it, you realize that the factors driving that were much more complicated.

Right, the research says the crime rate didn’t just go down because more people were in prison.

Right, it didn’t. And then you also have to look at the other, longer-term effects for the people that are in prison. I had one person—I had knocked on their door and talked to them during the campaign—and he said, “I just think everybody should go to jail for drugs. If you do drugs, you broke the law, you should go to jail.” And I said to him, “OK, let’s take your approach. But we can’t keep them in jail forever, can we? At some point they’re gonna get out of jail.” And the question is, when they come out of jail, what are the options available to them? Especially the young people.

I remember, maybe because I’m younger, I remember what it was like to be 16 or 17. And you know, at that period of time in your life, you don’t really have the maturity that you need to make good decisions, particularly if you’re coming from some of the environments that our young people are coming from. You send that person to jail when they’re 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22—those are years when people are growing up, and their environment really, really matters. If you’re in college and you’re around smart people—that’s gonna have an impact on you. If you’re in prison, and you’re around felons, crime is gonna be ingrained in you when you come out of that. And even if you really want to try your hardest to get out of jail and make a good faith effort to stay out of crime—you can’t get a job. I mean, that’s just the reality.  So, we’ve got to realize—and I think that frankly, society is realizing—that we’ve got to find better ways to transition some of these people out of the criminal justice system, or avoid the criminal justice system altogether.

In your campaign you differentiated yourself from the “tough on crime” philosophy. Did you see that as risky?  

The type of campaign I ran for district attorney, in the Deep South, is unique. A lot of people, when I told them I was running, and I told them what I was gonna talk about, they told me, “You can’t run on that—not in Mississippi. You can’t talk about alternatives to incarceration, you can’t talk about rehabilitation over incarceration. You can’t have a Facebook post where you point out that our judicial district … has the highest incarceration rate in the state, and that we’ve got more people in jail for drugs than any other part of the state.”

My opponent had some errors in convictions that were pretty notorious—and people were like, “Just run on that. Just say you’re not gonna make these errors.” And, well, of course I pointed out those errors, but I also wanted to run off something I was for. And the fact that I won the election is a big signal to district attorneys and assistant DAs and judges, if they’re paying attention, that there’s been a shift in public opinion.

But isn’t it the case that most voters don’t have a very clear understanding of the district attorney’s role in the criminal justice system? If that’s true, how much can we extrapolate from your victory?

Most people don’t know what the district attorney does. That was kind of shocking to me as I campaigned. And I would tell people that district attorneys are responsible for prosecuting felonies—and that means they are the people who have discretion over how the charges are done, and what sentences people get, and they’re responsible for presenting evidence to a jury. But I’m not really sure if that resonated with people, to be honest with you. What really, really resonates with people is when you say, “We’re sending too many young people to jail.” A lot of people agree with that statement. They don’t have to understand what the district attorney does. But they know that we’re sending too many young people to jail and it’s not working. And you start taking about, “I want to do this instead of jail, I want to start doing that instead of jail.” That resonates.

So what should be extrapolated from your victory?

I think we can extrapolate that candidates for district attorney should have the courage to run on criminal justice reform platforms. Because, I mean, this isn’t New York City. This isn’t San Francisco. Mississippi is a pretty red state. So the fact that, even in a conservative state that votes Republican overwhelmingly, that someone could run on a criminal justice reform platform and win, that tells you there’s been a shift in public opinion about how to deal with crime.

Now, of course, this part of my platform got a lot of attention—you’re interviewing me mostly because I ran on this platform. But I also talked a lot about violence. I didn’t say I’m gonna let these murderers go free. Because here’s the thing that I can tell you about district attorneys—even if people don’t know exactly what they do, they know that they’re responsible for public safety. So the first test you have to pass is you gotta make sure they know you’ll do whatever is in your power to make them safe. It’s just that people now understand that safety doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to lock up a kid for using cocaine.

Or selling cocaine?

Well … drug dealers are still not very popular. But people understand that we just have to be smart about how we deal with these young kids. If they make one mistake, and we can get them out of the system, that’s great.