July 8, 2014 10:28:56 AM
Lowndes County District Attorney Forrest Allgood does not make single moms. He just does his part in making sure they stay single moms.
In Sunday's edition of The Dispatch, Allgood made a rambling, disjointed case against the new law that will reduce prison sentences and change the threshold for some felony charges in an effort to reduce the number of Mississippians who are being incarcerated in our state prisons.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world (754 incarcerations per 100,000 people) and Mississippi is notoriously eager to lock up its residents. In fact, the state's zeal for putting people in prison is surpassed only by Louisiana. There are 24,000 inmates currently serving time in state custody, which means for every 100,000 residents, 686 are in state prison facilities. The cost to taxpayers, as you might imagine, is staggering. Mississippi spent $339 million on maintaining its prison population in 2013 alone.
According to one study, it costs almost 40 percent more to house a prisoner for four years than it does to send someone to college for that amount of time. You could make an argument that we should be sending low-level, non-violent offenders to State College not State Prison.
Seriously, though, when the Legislature looked at the costs of doing business, the changes in sentencing and charges are a logical response.
In this respect, Allgood was right: The changes were made primarily to save money. The changes are expected to save the state $266 million over the next 10 years. As someone who loves to tout his conservative bona-fides, Allgood might be expected to support any measure that saves taxpayers some hard-earned money. But in this case, fiscal restraint must take a backseat to something even more important to Allgood: His reputation as a tough-on-crime prosecutor.
This hardly makes him unique among prosecutors. Being tough on crime is the politically expedient course to take when you run for elected office. It plays well among voters whose fear and frustration over crime is understandable, even if the "solution" that have been offered for decades have proven to be ineffective and, in fact, counterproductive.
As with anything else, when you made a decision to spend money on something you naturally expect to see a return on that investment. If "tough on crime" policies worked, it stands to reason that crime would be reduced. That is not what has happened.
Contrary to Allgood's argument, tougher sentences have not reduced crime. The hysterical claims are on Allgood's side; the facts are not.
But any clear-eyed Mississippian doesn't need the statistics. Is there anyone who believes that there is less crime now than there was 10 years ago? Are there fewer drug dealers? Fewer burglaries? Fewer thefts?
Should we, as Allgood seems to suggest, continue to be so frivolous with our tax dollars?
Clearly, there are crimes that warrant severe punishment in the form of long prison sentences. Society demands it. Yet nearly three-quarters of the state's prison population is comprised of non-violent offenders.
And when it comes to these people, reason suggests that our society would benefit by finding an alternative to prison, not only because of the actual costs, but the costs that cannot be measured by dollars.
In Mississippi, the people we lock up are disproportionately poor, disproportionately black and disproportionately male. Interestingly, the victims of crime in our state are also disproportionately poor, disproportionately black and disproportionately male as well.
Crime is not an abstract in our poor, black communities. If much of the crime in those communities can be attributed to the drug culture that rushes in to fill the void created by poverty, lack of education and lack of opportunity, tough-on-crime policies are bad medicine prescribed to address the symptoms while exacerbating the underlying illness.
The lazy approach is just to keep locking people up for as long as possible. We absolve ourselves from responsibility and ease our consciences when we wash our hands, shake our heads and moan about how this indicates that there is a break-down in the family, that the men do not accept their responsibility for raising their children to be honest, hard-working contributing members of society.
But it's pretty hard to be a good dad when you're locked up in prison. And it's pretty hard to get a job when you have a felony record and no education.
Harsh sentences perpetuate poverty and hopelessness, which naturally leads to more of both.
The only thing the previous approach to this issue ensured is that there are more single moms out there, but if that's the problem, it's pretty clear Allgood doesn't see it as his problem.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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