In Birmingham, U.S. Attorney Town Says, “It’s Guns, It’s Dope, It’s Illegal Immigration, It Is Opioids”
Jay Town, one of the three Trump administration-appointed U.S. attorneys for Alabama, indicates there should be no mystery about his priorities in the Northern District of Alabama. They closely align with those outlined by the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he said.
“I think that General Sessions and the department made it very clear before I was sworn what the priorities of the department and, especially the criminal division, were,” Town said. “So, it’s guns, it’s dope, it’s illegal immigration, it is opioids. And we are executing those priorities very well. We recently released our fiscal ’17 numbers, and in all of those areas we had very robust numbers in terms of our prosecutions last year in comparison to the previous year and years.”
Town was one of Trump’s first three U.S. attorneys to be confirmed by the Senate. A former judge advocate general in the U.S. Marine Corp, Town served as a prosecutor in the Madison County District Attorney’s Office from 2005 to 2017. Town was involved in forming the Madison County Veteran’s Court, created to promote the physical and mental health needs of veterans in the criminal justice system. Before moving to Alabama, Town was “outside counsel at a large firm in New Jersey focused on commercial defense of major pharmaceutical, commercial and surety companies involved in litigation with federal agencies,” according to his official U.S. Attorney’s Office website.
Big City Problems
Town’s jurisdiction is centered in Birmingham, the state’s most populous city in its largest metro area, and encompasses the Huntsville-Madison County area, a hub of U.S. government work.
His office’s priorities reflect some of the problems endemic to this part of the state. Town said that, while priorities are shared among the 93 U.S. attorneys, “The way we are executing them, perhaps, is a little different.”
One example of that difference is in how federal law enforcement focuses on Birmingham, which is part of the designated National Public Safety Partnership.
“There are 12 communities in the country – Newark, Toledo, I think West Memphis and Birmingham – that fall into what is called the National Public Safety Partnership, and PSP, as we call it, gives not only sort of hyper-accurate crime analysis, crime data analysis, but it also provides sort of this holistic approach to things like prevention and community outreach, the different aspects of policing that actually have investigative and community touches to it,” Town said.
That means that for the PSP to succeed, federal authorities have to work closely with the communities under their jurisdiction, he said, because it leads to good cooperation when there is trouble. Birmingham is also part of the Project Safe Neighborhood program, a federal directive to find hot spots for criminal activities, “and then find the worst offenders in those areas, and then assist law enforcement at whatever level of putting cases on those worst offenders,” Town said, adding that “PSP is sort of PSN on steroids, if you will.”
Project Safe Neighborhood, a program retooled by the Justice Department in recent months, “is not just going after bad guys,” Town said. “It’s important that we engage our community leaders, whether they be governmental or otherwise, because prevention is just as big a part as law enforcement as anything.
“We can’t just incarcerate ourselves out of all of these problems,” Town said, adding that, instead of waiting for a young person to get into trouble, it makes more sense for authorities to invest time and other resources into activities that can keep kids on the straight and narrow. He cited Boys and Girls Clubs, Girls Inc. and the Y, along with faith-based and community organizations, as appropriate alternatives. “I think those things, along with a host of others, is our level-best effort to not even having to have those people targeted as worst offenders in the future. And that is really what our goal should be ultimately.”
The goal of PSN, then, is to help local communities marshal resources already available to prevent crime, he said. “When you get those stakeholders at the table, there’s a very powerful tool because you start to learn, someone (who) is situated in a neighborhood is going to know what that neighborhood wants and needs.”
Part of what PSN does is help community agencies meet needs through available federal money, Town said. “It’s not a funding thing, but when we identify needs, then we do have people that are under our employ in the department or in my office or down at ADECA that’s down in Montgomery, that can help those organizations apply for grant money that already exists for that specific purpose, but maybe we hadn’t identified that need yet or they didn’t know about that grant solution that already exists.”
The biggest drug problem on the national consciousness these days seems to be opioids, abuse of a category of pain killers including heroin and the synthetic fentanyl. These drugs have been behind a spike in addiction-related crimes, and strikingly, a dramatic uptick in the number of overdoses and overdose deaths in communities across the country. Trump has called opioid addiction a national public health crisis.
The Northern District of Alabama is designated “an opioid pilot project district,” Town said, adding that it is a priority of his office to go after “the pill-mill doctors and the medical prescribers and suppliers who are sacrificing good efficacy of care for greed.” His office has a Huntsville-based prosecutor dedicated strictly to the Opioid Pilot Project.
That assistant U.S attorney, Mary Stuart Burrell, works with almost 30 agents, investigators, analysts and other experts from various federal agencies, all focused on opioids, aided by “hyper-accurate numbers of what pill prescription is being done in a certain area by a certain doctor or office.” Town said.
Prosecutor to Prosecutor
In February, Town’s office launched “the Prosecutor-to-Prosecutor Program, or P3 program,” he said. P3 creates an “overlay” to compare state crimes to federal crimes with similar elements.
“Take a gun case – a felon in possession of a firearm – that’s typically a state case and a federal case all … in the same vein,” he said.
With those comparisons in hand, district attorney’s offices can contact designated federal prosecutors to determine whether the feds could be the better choice to handle a local case.
“They’ve been assigned an assistant U.S. attorney that they contact and say, ‘I have a case … . I am voluntarily asking you to determine whether or not it’s a federal case. And if it is, we want you to take it.’”
In practice, P3 can mean that a suspect arrested for a crime that might earn him limited state prison time, could be looking at a stiffer federal sentence, according to Town. He gave an example: “This is a worst offender… . We got a guy – we know he’s dealing, he’s stealing, robbing, shooting up neighborhoods – and a state trooper pulls him over on (Interstate) 65 with a gun under his front seat. That guy’s getting probation, if not a misdemeanor, right?”
But if the suspect has a significant criminal history – three prior felonies – when he’s pulled over with a gun under his seat, “the U.S. Attorney’s Office can offer significant sanction,” Town said. “We don’t have parole. We don’t have the (Alabama Department of Corrections) issues with bed space, so we can give 10, 12, 15 years to that individual that they would never get at a state level. Even if he was awarded 15 years, he’s not doing anywhere close to 15,” Town said.
“And that’s the point of the program. When you have a worst offender, you have them on something, but … (the state) sanction is insignificant, but the federal sanction is so much more significant. That is the reason for that DA to call this office … for them to funnel that case through the federal government for us to prosecute,” Town said. “Because it is, at the end of the day, what everybody wants.”
In all the federal acronyms his office is concentrating on, the letter “P” also stands for partnership, he said. “What I can tell you is that what the DAs want, what the local cops want, what the FBI and all the three-letter agencies want, is we want our worst offenders off the street and we want to give our communities back to the law-abiding citizens who’ve lived there for too long and behind their front door because of the criminal activity that is taking place on the street in front of them.”
Town said that, while the US Attorney’s Office, has often worked closely with local law enforcement, “I can tell you that the partnerships have never been more robust, the communication between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutorial agencies have never been more robust.”
Although Birmingham leaders declared the city to be a “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants in the wake of the Trump Justice Department’s ongoing crackdown on people in the country illegally, Town said that his office is focusing on an increase in illegal reentry cases.
Such cases, involving people previously deported who return to the U.S., “went from 16 cases in 2016 to 50 in 2017,” Town said. “Now those cases are sort of policed the same way. You know, they come to us; they’re sort of reactionary.
“But what we have committed to do, and what our agencies are committed to do, is when we find those individuals who have been deported and then find themselves back here, we are going to prosecute them and prosecute them aggressively. We do find that to be a priority of the department so it’s a priority of this office.”
Taking on Violent Crime
Town said that taking aim at violent crime involves collecting “hyper-accurate” data that allows the creation of a “heat map” showing the hot spots law enforcement will target.
“And so those areas are where the violent crime is sort of concentrated,” Town said.
In the city of Birmingham, where there were more than 100 homicides last year, Town said, smart policing means targeted enforcement. “That’s important that we use that information – that hyper-accurate crime data analysis – for our policing efforts. Then what we do when we do get the bad guys, we have to put the greatest sanction possible on them,” he said.
But the approach also allows for prevention and outreach efforts, he noted. “So, we’re not just doing regular shifts now,” he said. “We can actually have specialized units that are policing those neighborhoods that have the highest crime rates.”
That gives assigned officers the chance to build positive relationships with kids in the neighborhoods.
“You know, a 14-year-old kid might be a lot closer to the cusp of criminal activity than a 6-year-old, but they all need to have positive experiences with police officers or it’s not going to matter. Because they might not themselves be engaged in criminal activity, but they’re not going to help us when they see somebody who is,” Town said. “That’s a part of policing that’s very important and I think it’s been lost,” leading to eroding trust between officers and the communities they are sworn to serve and protect.
While U.S. attorneys can provide support services, they rely on state and local law enforcement partners that make the majority of the connections with people in the communities they cover
Town’s predecessor, Obama-appointee Joyce White Vance, focused the efforts of her office in several notable ways.
“During her tenure, she oversaw the development of a comprehensive initiative to tackle opioid and heroin addiction. She helped lead an ongoing investigation into abuse in Alabama prisons. She fought corruption and brought actions to protect the rights of immigrants,” said then outgoing Attorney General Loretta Lynch, shortly before Vance retired. “And she has been a valuable partner in the department’s efforts to improve relationships between police officers and the people they serve,” Lynch said.
Vance took on issues of civil rights, including voting rights, disability rights and the rights of members of minority religions, as well as color of law cases – which involve officials abusing their power in a variety of illegal ways.
How is the new administration in the Northern District of Alabama different? Town wanted to emphasize that he wasn’t criticizing his predecessor – or her predecessor, Alice Martin, for that matter.
“Let me say this first to preface all of this: I’m always hesitant to compare anything I’m doing to a predecessor because I’m well-aware that priorities come down from Washington into every U.S. Attorney’s Office,” he said.
Town said both of his predecessors carried out their mandates “very well,” but noted that the new presidential administration has different priorities. He expects to see more procurement fraud cases related to government contracts and national security. There will be a steady increase, he said, in firearms and Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force cases, because of programs like the Opioid Pilot Project and Public Safety Partnership, programs his predecessors didn’t have.
“Those are huge advantages for us because there are some funding advantages to me to be able to put a full-time prosecutor just on pill-mills – that is a big deal,” Town said.
He also said there is close cooperation among the three U.S. attorneys and the attorney general of Alabama. Their staffs and the agencies they work with are “constantly talking; they’re sharing resources and things like that. And so the fact that we’re all getting along; the fact that we’re all sort of on the same page and our ships are going in the same direction, maybe we have different propulsion methods, but they’re all going in the same direction.
Sessions’ tenure as U.S. attorney general has been dogged by concerns that he – a former senator from Alabama who has been accused of making racially insensitive remarks, which he has denied – would roll back civil rights protections advanced under the Obama administration. His Justice Department has also been seen by critics as less willing to consider accusations against police officers in an era when the conduct of cops has come under much public scrutiny in a number of high-profile cases.
But Town said that public corruption cases remain “an absolute criminal priority,” and that his office maintains a staff dedicated to dealing with civil rights issues. “Civil rights is an important element of what we do in the civil division; it’s a priority of the Department of Justice in this office,” Town said. “It’s important we get it right.”
Nick Patterson, formerly editor of Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper, leads a project looking at the influence of federal dollars, personalities, programs and policies in Alabama. The Alabama-Washington connection is a multi-billion-dollar question for Alabama, and that’s just the U.S. government dollars at play in a year in the state.