When Jennifer Riley Collins returned home to Mississippi in 1997 after earning her master's degree and serving on active duty in the military, she eagerly looked for ways to help better her home state. In 1999, Riley Collins, now 53, earned her law degree at Mississippi College School of Law, but continued her military service. She retired as an Army colonel and military intelligence officer in 2017.
"I began to look around Mississippi and said, 'What are some things that are impacting Mississippians?'" she told the Jackson Free Press in an interview on March 15. From the early 2000s onward, she advocated in Mississippi on issues such as juvenile-
justice reform. Now, she is the executive director of the Mississippi branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, where she works on behalf of vulnerable populations.
On Sundays, she is an usher in her church, New Horizon Church International, where she listens to the concerns of mothers who confide in her about their struggles and worries for their kids. And every day of the week from now
until November, she is the lone Democratic candidate for attorney general.
For the first time since voters first elected Democrat Jim Hood to the position in 2003, he is not running for re-election as the state's top prosecutor. Though it is the only Democrat-held statewide office left in Mississippi, Hood has set his sights on a loftier goal: the governor's mansion. For Riley Collins' party to hold onto the attorney general's office, she will not only have to defy the odds as a Democrat in a red state, but she will have to make history. If she is victorious, she will be the first African American to hold statewide office in Mississippi since the Reconstruction era—and the first African American woman ever to win a statewide office.
During our afternoon interview in downtown Jackson, she explained why she believes she is up to such a momentous task, and what she believes she can bring to the attorney general's office.
Tell me your story—what shaped you into the leader you are today?
Mississippi is home for me. I grew up in Meridian, now live in Clinton, and I have lived in Jackson. My 32-year service in the military and my public service have allowed me to be able to protect and defend. I returned to Mississippi in 1997, and I graduated law school in 1999.
I committed my law practice to focusing on things that are impacting working Mississippians—hard-working Mississippians. And so it brought me to this moment. I think that the attorney general's office is an office for the people, and so that's why I'm here.
How does your military career affect how you would approach the attorney general's office?
My military career informs it in that I did lift my hand to protect and defend the Constitution. That is also why I work for the American Civil Liberties Union, because the American Civil Liberties Union is focused on defending the Constitution. In order for justice to be afforded to everyone, the Constitution has to be evenly applied, and so my military career and my legal training have just led me to this point.
When and where did you serve?
I served on active duty for about 14 years total—they've been on and off—and then in reserve or National Guard for 18 years. I had service at Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Huachuca in Arizona. My last assignment overseas was at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, and my last assignment was at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., yesterday (March 14).
What can you do as attorney general to help change the state and send a message to younger people that Mississippi is not hopeless?
So again, Mississippi is home. It's a state that I absolutely love. I don't necessarily want to change Mississippi. I want (the state) to truly live up to being a state that is hospitable to everyone. So young people think about how people are treated in Mississippi, as the attorney general, I would represent all people and all people equally.
If young people are leaving the state because they feel like that there are no worker protections, I would want to ensure as the attorney general that there was a safe working environment where people had an opportunity to make a decent living.
I would work with the Legislature as much as I could. Of course, you know, it's the legislators' ability to make laws, but as the attorney general, I do have the responsibility of making recommendations to the Legislature, and I would make recommendations that ensure that equitable and educational opportunities were afforded to all Mississippians.
I don't believe that Mississippi is hopeless. I feel like there are other people in Mississippi who love (the state) just like I do. I have three sons, and my oldest left Mississippi and then returned because people want to be with their family, and I think that's why he returned—to be around family and be supportive. I want to create a Mississippi where our family members get to stay.
What would you say to the Legislature about constitutionally questionable bills like the current fetal heartbeat ban, which bans abortions after six weeks, or "religious freedom" bills that make it legal for businesses to discriminate against LGBT people?
As the attorney general, my job is to represent the legal interests of the state of Mississippi, and to represent all of its citizens. I would work with the legislators to ensure that they are looking holistically at the impact of the laws that they would be passing. But once those laws are passed, it is my responsibility as the attorney general to uphold them.
So you would defend those laws?
I would be duty-bound. Any attorney understands the basic principle of zealously and competently representing your client, and my client would be the citizens of Mississippi.
Jim Hood has also said he was duty-bound to defend laws like the 15-week abortion ban the Legislature passed last year. But a few years ago, he declined to defend House Bill 1523 because he said it was unconstitutional.
Well, that is correct. You do get to pick and choose to an extent the laws that come before you, but again, through the vessel of attorney general's opinions. My focus would be ensuring the legal interests of the state is protected.
How will you respond if the Legislature passes laws that you believe breach the separation of church and state?
I would always provide the best legal representation to the State of Mississippi, and sometimes (that) means telling your client that what you may be about to do is in violation of the Constitution. ... It has been established in law that the government should not infringe upon a person's rights by lifting up one religion over another, and so I would remind the State of Mississippi of that.
What approach would you take to juvenile-justice reform?
Reform of the juvenile-justice system, just like reform of the corrections system, is a legislative matter. Of course, I would advise any legislator who asks a legal question or for a legal opinion on what the law allowed, but reforming laws is actually a legislative function.
What steps would you take to address to opioid crisis?
Family should not be ripped apart. I want to make sure that people who are ill receive health-care treatment, and that people who have mental-health issues receive mental-health care. We should not be penalizing illnesses. We should ensure people receive treatment. I would ensure that people who use drugs, or have a substance-abuse or -misuse issue receive treatment.
How do we fight the opioid epidemic without making it difficult for people who need medications?
So I think we strike that balance with accurate public education, accurate evidence-based-information dissemination, and by making sure that people who are ill receive treatment. You know, if a person is suffering from an opioid addiction, that person needs treatment, and let's focus our efforts on making sure that people do not become addicted.
If Mississippi voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2020, and it looks like that will be on the ballot, would you foresee any challenges in implementing that on a legal basis?
I do not foresee any challenges. Again, that would be a legislative matter, and as attorney general, I would advise the Legislature on any legal questions regarding that.
Are there any areas of disagreement with Attorney General Jim Hood where you think you could bring improvements?
It's really not an issue to me of what Attorney General Hood has not done or what he has done. I'm focused on what I can do as the attorney general in the state of Mississippi. Again, my focus is on protecting vulnerable Mississippians, on combating the opioid epidemic, and on fighting for working Mississippians.
How would you approach issues related to police brutality, such as the shooting of unarmed or non-threatening suspects, and would you do anything to help prevent it?
I think that everyone else wants a community where we're all safe, and that means law enforcement and the community. I will tell you, I have family, and I have
young men that have grown up around my house with my son who are police officers, and we want to make sure that those law-enforcement officers come home safe at night.
At the same time, we want to make sure that ... African American young men who have negative interactions with law enforcement come home as well. And so as attorney general, I would train law enforcement and work with (the) community to build trust between the two that creates an environment where we all feel safe.
Do you think local law enforcement should be required to release the names of officers involved in shootings or other officer-involved deaths?
I think it depends on the situation. And so without a case-specific set of facts, I would not want to speculate.
What are some initiatives you would take to address
Domestic violence harms not only the family, but the entire community. I did not grow up in a house where anyone suffered from domestic violence, but I have known people, and I've seen reports on the evening news where victims have been heard. I will tell you, I grew up in a house with guns. I served in the military. So I'm familiar with guns. I think that one of the things that we can do is to ensure that we have responsible gun ownership, because we don't want victims of domestic violence to be victims of gun violence.
We could train law-enforcement officers to identify victims of domestic
violence. We could also train law enforcement to identify victims of human trafficking so that they are not confusing those victims with prostitution crimes.
What are your priorities when it comes to cybercrime?
Vulnerable populations like our children and elderly people really need to be protected from cyber criminals. You know, one of the things that Attorney General Hood has done an excellent job on is his program fighting internet crimes against children. We would definitely want to continue to ensure that program is funded because we don't want our children or elderly to be to be victimized by scammers.
If you win, you would be not only the first black statewide-elected official since Reconstruction, but the first black woman ever elected statewide. Rep. Barbara Blackmon hoped to make that history when she ran for lieutenant governor in 2003, but did not. Why do you think you can break that barrier?
Why do I think I can break the barrier? Why can't I break the barrier? I will be very honest with you. I am fully qualified for the position. I think people will see that as they learn about me, and as I get a chance to share my platform across the state of Mississippi. I think what I have to say will resonate with hard-working Mississippians, and they will see me as a fully qualified candidate. So why shouldn't I be able to break the barrier?
What will it mean if you do?
I think it will mean that Mississippi has taken on a new narrative, and that we are moving beyond a sometimes dark and bloody past, and that we are truly a state that is looking to move forward.
What would your approach be when it comes to civil rights?
We want to create a Mississippi that is ... for everyone. You know, it is a wonderful state. It must be hospitable to
everyone, so we would want to make sure that our state treats all of its citizens with dignity and fairness.
What do you believe are the most effective ways to reduce crime?
The best approach is building trust between law enforcement and community. We must prioritize people over prisons, and make sure that people who are suffering from an opioid addiction or mental-health issue are not thrown into prison, but instead receive treatment. It's about prioritizing people.
Do you think it's a bad thing that we depend so much on
I think it was not the best economic or social decision that was made. I think right now in the State of Mississippi, as across America, there is bipartisan support for criminal-justice reform because America has learned that throwing people into prisons is not the right answer. The right answer is restoring people.
How would you handle issues related to undocumented immigrants living in the state?
I think that there is a need for a comprehensive immigration reform. Again, that is a legislative matter, but I think when people are here, they should be treated with dignity and fairness. I think everyone should be afforded justice.
How will you approach that if a case related to illegal immigration comes before you?
Immigration is actually a federal matter, as long as the federal government is not enforcing something upon the state of Mississippi. I will tell you that, if there is anything that impacts the state negatively that is pushed by the federal government, I'll stand up for my state to ensure that everyone all Mississippi citizens are treated fairly.
In Mississippi, there are people who, for example, earned a degree but struggle to find a job in that field because of a felony drug charge when they were younger.
Is that fair?
I'm a Christian, and I think the basis of my belief system is that people receive redemption and restoration. I don't think any of us are immune from making mistakes in life, and when a person has paid their debt to society, I think people should be restored. If expungement laws are not already on the books, that would definitely be something that I would hope that the state Legislature would expand, so that a young person who made a mistake like that would have another opportunity.
Do you believe we should restore voting rights to people
Yes, most definitely. Once someone has paid their debt to society, they should be restored to their full rights
Can you tell me more about how your Christian faith informs the way you approach law and the way you approach people?
Sure. Isaiah 61:8 says, "I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing." That scripture right there speaks to me of what the true practice of law is about, and honestly what being an attorney general is about. So it is not justice for some—it is justice for all. I'm not in any way suggesting that the prison doors be slung open, but that we make smart justice decisions for Mississippi.
The Landowner's Protection Act that is making its way through the Legislature is a bill that would make it more difficult for people to sue business owners if they are injured on their property. What do you think of that?
I would want to always ensure that all Mississippians are maintained as whole beings. And so if there is an issue of liability and negligence, I think that a person should have a right to be made whole.
I would ask legislators to think about their own families, because their families are Mississippians, too.
What's your view on the
I have concerns. We know from statistics it has played out disproportionately for African Americans. I would want to ensure that, if the State of Mississippi ever pursues the death penalty, that a person was afforded all rights of appeal.
I would want to make sure that it was done in a humane way. Even in the process of death, people should be treated with dignity.
What are some priorities you believe are important that I may not have mentioned?
My priorities are protecting vulnerable Mississippians. There are children who are victims of violence and elderly (who are) victims of crime.
When I think about protecting vulnerable Mississippians, I often think about the mothers in the church (where I'm an usher) who tug on my coat, and they say "Hey, I just want to ask you a question after church."
I've heard stories of mothers who have had their limited income stolen by someone who sought to defraud them. And so I would want to make sure that we prioritize our efforts on protecting those vulnerable adults.
I cannot stress enough the combating of the opioid crisis. I don't want to see any families ripped apart because a child was playing football—and in Mississippi, we love Friday night lights—and let's say that child was injured and was taken to the doctor to receive treatment, and then later became addicted to the prescription meds. He could be punished for something that was simply supposed to help. I would want to ensure that he received treatment.
When it comes to ensuring that we are fighting for working families, my
father and my mother were hard-working Mississippians, and I miss them dearly. They, to me, demonstrated what Mississippi is all about. It's about working to provide for your family. And we want to make sure that when Mississippians work, they are protected at work and they have security in their jobs.
So again, I am committed to the state of Mississippi. It is home for me. I love this state. I want to serve its people. It is a continuation of public service for me. I think that the attorney general's office is duly positioned to ensure that Mississippi is made better, and I want to be a part of that.
Follow state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Email him at [email protected]. Read more about this year's elections at jacksonfreepress.com/2019elections.