A few bad guys are giving Natchez a bad rap

Published 12:01 am Sunday, September 30, 2018

Tommy Ferrell thinks Natchez and Adams County are getting a bad rap, because of a bad few.

Now retired, Ferrell led law enforcement in Adams County for 16 years as sheriff, following in his father’s footsteps. The late Billy Ferrell was the county’s top lawman for 24 years.

“I read, to my uncomfortable state, that people are saying this is a crime-ridden town,” Tommy Ferrell said. “It’s not a crime-ridden town. It’s a very few that commit crime over and over.”

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Growing up in a law enforcement family, even serving as the president of the National Sheriff’s Association at one point, Ferrell knows the challenges law enforcement officers face, particularly in Adams County where all too often names of those arrested are familiar because they’re repeat offenders.

“I’ve been out of law enforcement for 14 years,” Ferrell said. “Sadly, I see the same names in crime coverage. A lot of cases, it’s the son; it’s junior.

“It’s the same people over and over and over,” Ferrell said.

The former sheriff said the problem of repeat offenders is nothing new, but it’s gotten far worse over the years, particularly in Adams County.

“I think it’s terrible now,” he said. “It’s lack of prosecution. When is the last time you saw a major crime that you can write about go to trial?”

Ferrell said all too often serious criminal cases are plea-bargained down to lesser crimes.

“We have entirely too much plea bargaining,” he said. “You never see a big trial anytime lately.

“We go into court, and we say, ‘Let’s make a deal. I don’t understand that.”

“When I said that 14 years ago, everyone came out and campaigned against me,” Ferrell said. He lost his bid for reelection in 2004.

“I was demanding accountability, and it didn’t come.”

Ferrell said the problems facing local law enforcement have only gotten worse.

“The only way to solve a problem like that is by elections,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone to run for these positions,” Ferrell said. “If you notice, every time they run for reelection, they run unopposed.”

Ferrell said he’s hopeful that new people aiming to fix the system will run for district attorney and judge positions.

“Whoever runs for DA needs to run on the platform of ‘no plea bargaining,’” he said.

The problem of plea-bargaining down to a lighter sentence rather than going to trial is only the start of a cyclical problem, Ferrell said, and most of those closest to the problems cannot freely speak up because of fear of retribution from prosecutors or judges.

“The poor law enforcement officers,” he said. “It’s like walking on eggshells.

“They sometimes immediately catch the people involved and the system breaks down. It goes all the way to the top including the penitentiary system.”

Ferrell said it’s a relative common occurrence that someone in Adams County is charged with a serious crime. Then plea-bargains down to a lesser crime. That person often receives a light sentence that becomes even lighter due to state prison overcrowding issues.

“Once he’s sentenced, the state penitentiary rules take over,” Ferrell said. “In some cases you get day-for-day credit, sometimes three-for-one. Sometimes … due to overcrowding, you’re out in one-third of the time originally sentenced.”

This results in violent criminals sometimes begin back on the streets very quickly after a conviction.

“That’s a slap in the officer’s face,” Ferrell said. “You feel useless. You’re out there doing your job, putting yourself in danger. You find yourself arresting the same people for five or six times for the same charges.”

The lack of significant prison time also removes any hope of the punishment offering a significant deterrent for breaking the law.

“There is no fear in the local thugs of our system in our community,” Ferrell said. “In some cases it’s worn as a badge of honor. ‘How many years have you served?’

“I’m as frustrated as anybody,” he said.

“You’ve got to get these people who are not performing out of their office and put someone in who will.”

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.