December 14, 2018 11:20:26 AM
I spoke at the first Mississippi Summit on Criminal Justice Reform on Tuesday about the need to invest in proven public safety strategies. Those in attendance heard similar testimonials from legislators, judges, law enforcement officials, and families impacted by incarceration, all of whom are ready to see Mississippi take the next step on criminal justice reform.
There is no doubt we have made important progress in recent years. Mississippi's prison population was at an all-time high when I took office, and I'm proud of the changes we've made to reduce the prison population while maintaining strong public safety. Since the historic overhaul of our sentencing laws in 2014, we've experienced declines in both crime and imprisonment rates. But there is still work to be done.
I've spoken to people all over the state who tell me they want a criminal justice system that prioritizes strong families and safe communities, and reflects the Christian values of rehabilitation and redemption. Doing everything we can to ensure individuals in our correctional facilities are prepared to successfully return to society and not end up back in prison is of the highest priority.
Research has shown there are better ways to prevent crime than filling our jails and prisons to capacity. To be sure, there are individuals that deserve to never leave prison for the rest of their life due to violent crimes and being a danger to society. And then there are those that we're mad at for making bad decisions, sometimes habitually, but pose no threat to the public. These individuals must also be held fully accountable, but also be able to reenter society with a much higher success rate than we're currently seeing. Mississippi taxpayers spend more than $300 million on the prison system each year, and we can follow the lead of other conservative states to get a better return on that investment while also better equipping those men and women currently in our prisons that will one day be back with their families and in the Mississippi workforce.
Additionally, despite evidence that incarceration does not reduce drug use or overdose deaths, the number of people sentenced to prison for drug offenses is growing faster than other types of crime in our state. This is clearly due to the opioid abuse epidemic that, like the nation, Mississippi hasn't been immune to in our communities. We must hold people responsible, but alternatives to incarceration such as drug court or probation are more effective and cost much less than prison sentences. Safely helping people turn their lives around in the community is better for our families and economy.
These are just some of the issues that were discussed by more than one hundred criminal justice stakeholders at the Summit on Criminal Justice Reform. Even with the progress we've seen during my administration with the criminal justice system, considerable work remains to reduce the number of people in jail or prison and increase opportunities for success once they leave the system and rejoin society. I have worked on the federal level with President Trump on the FIRST Step Act and seen firsthand this is a bipartisan issue with strong support. I am hopeful the Mississippi Legislature will take these issues up in the new year and adopt meaningful criminal justice reforms for the people of Mississippi.
Phil Bryant is the governor of the state of Mississippi.
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