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Emmerich: Legislators Need to Acknowledge Failure, Chart a Different Course on Prison Reform

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, making his last State of the State address last month, called for Mississippi to lead the nation in criminal justice reform.

“Imagine if we could help lead the nation in criminal justice reform, while reducing our prison population and saving more than $40 million for Mississippi taxpayers. Much work remains in this critical area, and this session.

“I will ask you to take the next step in criminal justice reform. As a former law enforcement officer, I realize some believe our innovations will somehow be soft on crime. Nothing could be further from reality. If we hope to ever lower our crime rate, we must start with the 33 percent that leave our correctional system only to return within three years. If President Donald J. Trump can pass nationwide criminal justice reform through a gridlocked and hyper-partisan Congress, surely we can do so right here in Mississippi.”

What’s going on here? A Republican governor who was a former deputy sheriff calling for criminal justice reform? What happened to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key?”

Here’s the best way I can explain it: The old sweeping dust under the rug analogy. It works for awhile, but sooner or later there is so much dust and dirt under the rug that you can no longer ignore it. At that point, the only remaining solution is to actually pick the rug up, clean out all the accumulated dirt and quit sweeping the dirt under the rug in the future.

That’s where we are with the criminal justice system. It is expensive and it’s not working. Instead of reducing crime, it’s creating a permanent criminal sub-class that perpetuates itself.

Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world – 10 times higher than most developed countries. Our prisons have been taken over by gangs. Corruption is rampant. We’re not making progress. It’s an embarrassment.

Mississippi is a very Christian state. Christianity teaches forgiveness and redemption. Our current punitive system is at odds with who we are spiritually. Every criminal is a child of God capable of redemption.

Gov. Bryant has not produced a detailed position paper on his criminal justice reform platform, but think tanks and specific proposed legislation paint numerous concepts basic to the criminal reform movement:

– Give district attorneys, judges and parole officers more discretion. Anger about crime over the years led the state legislature to pass harsh mandatory sentences. But the legislators aren’t in the field, dealing with reality. Their ivory tower mandates don’t work and have ruined far more lives than they have saved. So many voters have a friend or relative in prison, that it has changed public opinion.

– Quit locking up the mentally ill in prisons run by gangs. A third of our prison population is mentally ill. These people need treatment. There should be a variety of mental health facilities, with varying levels of incarceration, to deal with the wide variety of mental illness in our state.

– Quit locking up addicts. Addiction is a disease, like mental illness. These people should go to drug courts and treatment facilities, not prison.

– Provide educational options in prison. Prisoners should be able to reduce their sentence by completing life skill courses, academic courses, technical training and other forms of rehabilitation. Much of this could be done with affordable online courses.

– Distinguish between people who we’re mad at and people who are dangerous. For non-violent offenders, use house arrest with GPS ankle bracelet tracking. That way, these people can continue their lives and careers. Locking up so many non-violent offenders drains resources needed to deal with the truly violent criminals.

– Provide tax credits for employers who hire ex-convicts. As the biggest taxer, the feds could do the greatest good here, but the state could also help. The key is to get these people re-integrated into society. The last thing we want to do is damage these people forever, making them unemployable wards of the state who will return to crime in desperation.

– Allow for expungement of criminal records after five years of good behavior. Again, marking someone forever will make it harder for them to become productively employed.

– Decriminalize drugs. Just like Prohibition, the war on drugs has failed. It has created more violence as gangs battle to dominate the black market. Street drugs are impure and deadly. Gangs are a huge danger to the entire fabric of our society. Just look at what has happened in Mexico.

Mississippi’s drug laws are so punitive that possession of one prescription of illegal opioids can cause a 15-year mandatory sentence for drug dealing with no parole. Many of our trafficking laws are based on “dosage” amounts that are outdated and need revision. The state legislature needs to repeal these mandatory trafficking amounts and give the discretion back to our district attorneys and judges.

– Let juries know the possible sentence resulting from a guilty verdict. Currently, Mississippi juries have no idea a guilty verdict on certain drug possession charges can lead to decades in jail because of legislated mandatory sentences. Six states actually allow juries to participate in sentencing. Some jury oversight, or at least understanding, of the possible result of their guilty verdict would serve as a check on the district attorney, judge and legislators.

– Get the gangs out of the prisons. To save money, gangs are allowed to help manage our prisons in return for the contraband concession. This is the dirty little secret of our government. Low pay for prison guards enhances temptation. This is a matter of political will and leadership.

– Bail reform. Hinds County Detention Center is full of people who couldn’t post bail because they are poor. They stay for months, even years, awaiting a trial. Many are simply forgotten. This is typical in our state.

– Create halfway houses for released convicts who have no place to go when released from prison.

– Create a statewide public defenders system. In many small towns and counties, the public defenders are contractors hired by the very legal establishment they are supposed to oppose. This further traps organizationally challenged lower income people in an ever-increasing mountain of fines and prison threats.

– Increase prison ministry instead of creating roadblocks in the name of security. In reality, prison officials don’t want anyone to see how bad it really is.

This will all cost money, which is hard for a state like Mississippi with no major metropolitan area. As it stands, we are spending $300 million on incarceration versus $800 million for higher education.

Mississippi spends 90 percent on incarceration and 10 percent on rehabilitation. In Europe, the numbers are reversed. Mississippi needs to move toward a rehabilitative criminal justice system and away from a punitive system. It’s not a quick fix, but a long-range goal.

Currently there are dozens of bills pending in the legislature moving in this direction. Current polls show Mississippians now overwhelmingly support criminal justice reform. The key is for legislators to quit passing draconian knee-jerk mandatory sentences for fear of being perceived as soft on crime. Instead, legislators need to acknowledge failure and chart a different course.

There is no doubt, vicious crimes occur all the time. That will never change. But we cannot let sensationalized crimes fuel a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mindset for any and all crimes. It has failed to work, worsened crime in the long run and made our per capita incarceration rates an embarrassment to the state.

Wyatt Emmerich is the publisher of the Northside Sun

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