U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland spoke to Kiwanians on Wednesday regarding the success Project Safe Neighborhoods has had in Little Rock and also on the importance of continuing the fight against drug crimes.
Project Safe Neighborhoods is an initiative that targets gun crimes across the nation. The program brings together federal, state and local law enforcement with prosecutors as the many agencies work to identify pressing violent crimes across the United States.
Since the initiative began locally, the Eastern District of Arkansas has indicted 412 firearm-related cases:In 2017, the Eastern District of Arkansas indicted 62 such cases. In 2018, the federal office indicted 249 gun cases. The Eastern District of Arkansas has indicted 101 firearms-related cases to date in 2019.
Hiland, who was nominated by President Donald Trump for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas position, took the oath off office in October 2017. In that time, the office has seen a significant rise in the number of cases it files as Hiland works alongside law enforcement to keep firearms out of the hands of convicted, violent criminals’ hands.
“Our office in 2018 had an 83% increase in cases and defendants in our courts,” he said Wednesday. “We’re proud of that.”
Upon taking the oath of office, Hiland said U.S. Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions made it clear he needed to reduce violent crime.
“That was our No. 1 priority,” Hiland said.
By re-establishing and re-building relationships with state and local law enforcement, Hiland said his office has focused to making Arkansas streets safer.
Shortly before he took office, 28 people were injured in an early-morning shooting at the Power Ultra Lounge in Little Rock.
“It was an incredibly violent event, and incredibly random,” Hiland said. “Fortunately, no one passed away from that. As a result of that [shooting], the crime in Little Rock and central Arkansas came to focus.”
Following this tragedy, officials “strategically tried to attack the gangs in Little Rock.”
Kiwanian Dustin Chapman, who is the city attorney of Greenbrier, said Hiland’s office works diligently to fight a number of high-profile crimes.
“They have attorneys at that office that are focused on things that most of us probably don’t even know about,” he said. “They have people on the front lines fighting terrorism, organized crime, human trafficking, the drug crisis, corruption, white collar crime … all sorts of things like that. If you think that we don’t have problems like that in the Eastern District of Arkansas, it’s just because you don’t know about it.”
As the Eastern District of Arkansas began targeting Little Rock gangs, Hiland said his office worked alongside the FBI, the Little Rock Police Department, Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as the DEA. From his years spent serving the community as a prosecutor, Hiland said he felt he could make a difference by sentencing felons with a violent criminal history on federal gun-crime charges. While he said he supports the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms, Hiland said he does not believe individuals with a violent past should be able to have a weapon. He also said he feels the state’s parole system is “weak,” and that this initiative ensures dangerous individuals spend time behind bars.
“We have a real problem with parole,” Hiland said. “Too many people go to prison and come right back out.”
Regarding the misconception that much of the prison population is made up of “people [who have] just been smoking pot,” Hiland said the narrative is “untrue.”
“The truth is, less than 3% of the prison population in the state of Arkansas is there for possession of drugs,” he said. “Even in that 3%, most of those have been plead down from delivery [charges]. Only 30% of the people that we prosecute at the local level statewide actually go to prison.”
Regarding first-time offenders, the former 20th Judicial District prosecutor said there are a number of programs locally to rehabilitate individuals found guilty of a drug-related crime including drug court, veteran’s court, suspended imposition of sentences and regional correctional facilities (RCFs). RCFs are residential facilities that offer treatment and programs in an effort to reduce recidivism and deter the need for a long-term incarceration.
“There are a number of things that can happen and does happen for first-time offenders when they get caught with drugs or some less-violent crime,” Hiland said. “That’s a story that’s not told. If you want to go to prison in the state of Arkansas, you’ve got to work really hard.”
It’s important that the 20th Judicial District and other districts across the state offer such programs, because despite some residents’ beliefs that drug crimes are “victimless,” Hiland said that also is “untrue.”
Throughout his career, Hiland said he has been mocked and told he’ll “never kill the drug trade.” Despite claims that drug crimes are victimless, Hiland said he has seen a number of drug-crime victims, even in Faulkner County.
“If you think drugs are a victimless crime, you need to come sit in our juvenile court,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “If you think drugs are a victimless crime, you can come and look at row after row of young people who are angry. They’re bitter and they’re lonely because their parents have checked out to satiate whatever immediate gratification is driving them at the time. You know what it usually is? Drugs.”
Regarding a murder case that placed a 16-year-old boy behind bars for 35 years for shooting and killing his grandparents in Conway when he was 14 years old, Hiland said the matter also could be attributed to the teen's parents' drug use. Justin Staton acted alongside three other teens who also are serving prison sentences in the July 2015 double-murder of Robert and Patricia Cogdell.
The case was tragic, because young Staton was the victim of a life influenced by drugs, Hiland said, referencing the fact that the boy’s parents were in and out of jail on drug-related charges.
“His grandparents loved him, but mom and dad checked out,” Hiland said. “The grandparents were trying to raise him right and were doing what they could. They had pictures of him up all over the walls … they went to his juvenile court appearances.”
After the teen was jailed, Hiland said it became clear to prosecutors that Staton had “no remorse.”
Officials learned from another young inmate that Staton bragged that “Grandma took it like a man, but Grandpa went out like a b****.”
“No remorse. Cold. Bitter. We have got to address that,” Hiland said. “When I hear people say that drugs are victimless crimes … [just] don’t tell me that.”
Regarding the fight against gun crimes, Hiland said his office is able to work stricter against felons accused of possessing firearms than local prosecutors.
Because the possession of firearms by certain persons charge is a Class D felony, local prosecutors can work to sentence an individual to a maximum of six years in prison if the individual is found or pleads guilty to the charge. With the way the parole system is set up, those ordered to serve the maximum, six-year sentence on would only have to serve one-sixth (or one year) of the sentence.
“At the federal level, we don’t have parole, so I can get someone on a gun crime with a felony possession,” Hiland said. “I can give them five, 15 [or] 20 years, not months. That’s real time.”
The cases his office prosecuted involving individuals previously convicted of felons were sent to his officer for review by the Little Rock Police Department. Hiland said his office did not accept every case, and that he is not looking to prosecute all felons in this manner.
After putting out billboards and issuing statements on the radio stating “Gun Crime = Fed Time” the U.S. attorney said he began looking at serious, violent offenders and started charging them federally.
“The goal there is to provide some level of accountability for people that are committing violent crime. We’re not looking for the guy who 20 years ago had a drug felony and now got caught on a [traffic] stop with a gun. That’s not what we’re after. We’re after the people who should be in prison already who have a criminal history this long,” he said while holding his arms spread wide apart.
Overall, the initiative looks to be working in Little Rock.
“At the end of 2018, the homicide rate dropped by 24%. That’s compared to 2017,” Hiland said. “Non-fatal shootings, which are drive-bys, dropped 55% in 2018.”
The initiative will expand following a rise in crime in areas such as Pine Bluff and Helena-West Helena. While these are major crime areas, Hiland said the danger affects all of central Arkansas while referencing the Fragstein case. Hiland pointed to the fact that the two teens accused of abducting and killing a Wooster woman from the Conway Commons shopping center in broad daylight are allegedly part of a gang “whose stock trade is stealing cars and killing people.”
“It’s not just Little Rock crime or Pine Bluff crime, it’s really a central Arkansas issue,” he said.
Hiland told Kiwanians his office will begin pushing the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative across the state in an effort “to make a difference in those areas.”