Incumbent facing newcomer for 4th Judicial District Prosecutor

Stephen Coger (left) and Matt Durrett
Stephen Coger (left) and Matt Durrett

FAYETTEVILLE -- The race for prosecuting attorney in the 4th Judicial District pits Matt Durrett, a prosecutor seeking a third term, against Stephen Coger, a political newcomer who says the current system is broken and needs reform.

The district comprises Madison and Washington counties.

Durrett, 48, said the experience and knowledge he has gained working at the prosecutor's office, first as a deputy and later as the elected prosecutor, differentiates him from his opponent.

"I have experience handling criminal cases. I have spent the last 23 years trying criminal cases before juries in Washington and Madison counties," Durrett said. "I've prosecuted thousands of criminal cases, from theft of property to capital murder. I've dedicated my entire legal career to prosecuting felons."

Durrett said he has run an office of 50 employees and managed an annual budget of over $1.5 million for more than seven years.

"In any prosecutor's race, public safety is a key issue. People need to feel safe in their homes, at work, when out in public," Durrett said. "Criminal offenders have to be held accountable for their actions. Accountability can come in several forms. Some people need to be incarcerated. Others, some of those who are nonviolent, need rehabilitation. They need services and more importantly for many of them, they need to be made to pay restitution to those they have harmed financially."

Durrett said knowing when to file charges and when not to is critical for a prosecutor.

"Prosecutors have an ethical responsibility to only bring a charge when there is sufficient evidence to support it. That is one of the most difficult aspects of the job, letting a victim know why we cannot file a charge in a particular case."

Durrett said in 2018, his office helped found the National Child Protection Task Force. It started out as a one-man operation, but has grown to include an international group of experts dedicated to tracking down and catching human traffickers and those who exploit children.

Durrett said many different groups perform different roles to keep the justice system functioning.

"For our system to function as it should, to keep our community safe, we need a prosecutor who will work with law enforcement instead of against it."

Coger, 37, is an attorney from Fayetteville. He's a former Fulbright Scholar who grew up in Danville and runs a law practice that specializes in helping women and child survivors of human trafficking and sexual abuse.

"I want this job because our criminal justice system is broken, and my opponent has done very little in his almost eight years as prosecutor to fix it," Coger said. "During this time, and all across the nation, we have seen common sense, life-saving and cost-saving measures put into place" in other places, he said.

Coger said he considers the top issues in the race to be public safety and bail reform along with crime prevention and community involvement.

"I will focus on punishing violent crime and folks who are damaging or stealing property," Coger said. "I have seen the harm violence causes in children and other survivors and I have – too often – seen that people who cause harm are not punished at all or not sufficiently."

The first issue is addressing violent crime to promote public safety, Coger said.

"My motivation for running is that too often I have seen the abusers and traffickers of my child clients pay their cash bail and be out just days after their arrest," he said. "This brings terror to survivors and the community in general. It has to stop."

Coger said he also plans to meet monthly with communities affected by crime and the stakeholders who can help provide solutions to prevent crime.

He said he would propose a mental health court, a pretrial services program and a justice involved supportive housing program for the homeless in his first three months, if elected. Warrant amnesty clinics, mental health courts and pretrial services have been needed for years, he said.

"We can save millions of tax dollars annually by creatively using the power of the prosecutor's office to stop crime before it happens rather than just react to it," Coger said.

Coger said the annual jail budget is more than $12 million, and he thinks it's possible to save $1 million a year by releasing those who pose no danger to the public, have no prior violent offenses and show up for their court dates.

"I will manage an office that works cohesively to repair our criminal justice system," Coger said. "We will bring important change to the 4th Judicial District and, by quantifying how our policy changes save millions of dollars and make us safer, we will promote safety and fiscal responsibility across the whole state."

Speciality courts

Durrett said drug traffickers need to be in prison but their victims, and society in general, can benefit from having rehabilitation programs and specialty courts.

"I am a firm believer in and strong supporter of our drug and veterans court programs. I believe that our community benefits when those who commit low-level drug offenses or drug-related offenses receive treatment to get them on the road to recovery," he said. "When an addict is off drugs, gainfully employed, supporting his or her family and paying taxes, we are all better off than paying to incarcerate that person."

Durrett said he'd also like to see a mental health court in the district.

Coger said there are mountains of data from across the country that prove the programs save lives and money both immediately and in the long term. Durrett has been in a position to advocate for them, but hasn't done so, he said.

"I specifically want to see us expand drug court and veterans court and one of my first acts will be to start work on establishing a mental health court," Coger said. "So many of the people in our jail today are there with unaddressed mental health problems."

Coger said from 2013 through 2020, 93% of the crimes against society in Washington County were drug and drug related, and theft of property and other crimes are also often related to drug abuse, according to the Arkansas Crime Information Center. Incarcerating a person costs about $95 per day, according to the Arkansas Legislative Joint Auditing Committee, Coger said.

"We can take a small amount of that cost and institute diversion courts, drug addiction treatment and other policies to prevent those crimes and save lives," Coger said. "So, while I will punish violent offenders, we will also seek to heal those folks that are willing to do better."

Jail expansion

Durrett said an expansion of the Washington County Jail may be needed, due to the region's population growth, but not before other options have been exhausted, something the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee he serves on is examining.

"One thing we are looking at is starting a pretrial services program. Under such a program, nonviolent offenders, including those who have failed to appear for court, can be released without having to post a bond," Durrett said.

"They would be subject to supervision and offered services, such as drug and mental health treatment, job training and various other services. The purpose of this is to reduce the number of failure to appear as well the number of defendants who reoffend while awaiting trial."

Washington County had around 70,000 fewer residents when the jail was built in 2004, Durrett said. An expansion will cost the taxpayers several million dollars, so that should be a last resort, he said. But refusing to consider expansion under any circumstances is not a responsible position, he said.

Coger contends a jail expansion is not needed and the resources can be better spent elsewhere. A lot of people in jail are pretrial detainees or people who failed to appear for court, he said.

"Eighty percent of the people in jail are there pretrial, so they have not been found guilty of a crime," Coger said. "Plenty of those people do not pose a danger to anyone. They should not be stuck on your and my taxpayer dime, but there they are, because of cash bail."

Coger said high pretrial bonds are a driver of jail overcrowding. He thinks there are more effective and far less expensive ways to get people to come to court. For example, people could be released with conditions they keep their job and check in twice weekly, he said.

"While this is up to the judge, the prosecutor has the power to influence the amount of bail and can also make the recommendation that money bail not be set at all," Coger said. "The bail system was originally intended to ensure that offenders come to court, but in reality it often means that wealthier defendants get released while poor defendants sit in jail. It shouldn't be about what's in your wallet."

The nonpartisan election is May 24. Prosecuting attorneys earn $171,122 per year and serve four-year terms.

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