Originally published by: Clarion Ledger
Written by: Matt Schlapp & Van Jones
Just hours before the federal government entered a partial shutdown in December, President Trump signed the First Step Act into law. This important criminal justice reform bill passed Congress overwhelmingly. In fact, every Mississippi senator and congressman supported it. The legislation also had the endorsements of our organizations as well as from groups representing police, prosecutors, formerly incarcerated people, businesses, and churches.
The First Step Act was a bipartisan success story. But that does not mean liberals or conservatives compromised their core principles or gave up their party’s treasured philosophies. Just the opposite, in fact. Last year in Washington, the left and right were able to come together — without preconceived notions — and look at what works and what doesn’t at the federal level. What we found was that a one-size-fits-all justice system does not make us safer. Neither do long sentences, especially for people who commit lower-level offenses.
For too long, our criminal justice system prioritized punishment over redemption. We tasked our prison systems with merely warehousing people, rather than rehabilitating them. And in doing so, we allowed the number of people in prison, recidivism rates, and corrections costs to skyrocket. The First Step Act relies on a different approach — one that helps people turn their lives around, support their families, and contribute back to their communities. By doing so, they are less likely to re-offend, making our neighborhoods safer.
Recently, Mississippi policymakers began to take a closer look at what could be improved about the state’s own justice system. In December, we joined Governor Phil Bryant, state lawmakers, and policy experts from across the ideological spectrum at the Mississippi Summit on Criminal Justice Reform. The takeaway was simple: bold criminal justice reform is needed not just in Washington DC, but in Mississippi as well.
The numbers speak for themselves. Mississippi has the third highest incarceration rate in the nation, with 28,700 people behind bars in state prisons or county jails. And while the imprisonment rate is 57 percent higher than the national average, crime over the last decade has fallen four times faster in other states than in Mississippi.
Under Bryant’s leadership, Mississippi made important progress. Since passing much-needed reforms in 2014, the Magnolia State experienced declines in both crime and imprisonment. However, past reforms have left large parts of the criminal justice system unchanged and the impact of the previous efforts has likely run its course. In fact, the number of people behind bars remains near an all-time high, resulting in Mississippians paying $360 million in taxes each year to support an unnecessarily large prison system.
Many of the people in jail or prison in Mississippi are incarcerated for low-level offenses and crimes driven by addiction. The number of people going to prison for simple drug possession has grown 41 percent over the past two years alone.
More than half of the people in Mississippi jails have not even been convicted of a crime. Too many remain in custody while awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges that don’t even carry a prison sentence. They are too poor to make bail and too proud to accept a plea bargain.
To be sure, people who have broken the law need to be held accountable. But not every conviction requires a lengthy prison sentence. We should reserve costly prison cells for those we are afraid of, not for people society is merely mad at.
For people who end up behind bars, Mississippi’s laws make it difficult for them to turn their lives around once they have completed their sentences. It doesn’t make Mississippi any safer when we take someone’s driver’s license away or keep them locked out of employment opportunities just because of a past conviction. But it does hurt our families and our businesses. Rather than continuing to punish people after they have paid their debts to society, we should be creating pathways for them to become contributing citizens again.
Reform efforts in Mississippi must address both Mississippi’s outsized incarceration rate and the barriers people face after a criminal conviction. Luckily, the First Step Act provides a blueprint to do just that. The legislation corrects policies that sent too many people to prison and kept them there for too long. At the same time, it expands rehabilitation and faith-based programs that have been proven to slow the revolving door in and out of the criminal justice system.
Similar policies have worked in states like Texas and Georgia. With President Trump’s support of the First Step Act, they will work in our federal prisons, too. Now is the time for Mississippi to follow suit. Done right, Mississippi’s “next step” will include sentencing and pretrial reforms that safely drive down the state’s incarceration rate and help Mississippians coming home from prison to rejoin their families and the workforce.
We were happy to see criminal justice reform bills advance out of committee last week. However, some are attempting to water down the Senate reform package. If Mississippi wants to follow the White House’s lead on criminal justice reform, sentencing must be part of the solution.
Mississippi’s incarceration crisis removes thousands of people from the economy and hurts families and communities. With the support of so many national and state leaders, there has never been a better time to act.
Matt Schlapp is the chairman of the American Conservative Union and Van Jones is the co-founder of #cut50.