Wyatt Emmerich: Multiple voices move state forward on criminal justice reform


Wyatt Emmerich



Editor's note: This column, written early this month, references a bill that has since been signed into law. 


The legislature has just passed another bill designed to tackle Mississippi's sky-high incarceration rate. 


How high is it? England and France, which have about the same standard of living as Mississippi, have one-tenth the incarceration rate as our state. Indeed, Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. 


Like a lot of Mississippians, my approach to crime has been simple -- just lock them up. That'll learn 'em. But like a lot of things in life, it's never really that simple. 


For one thing, low pay for guards has created a broken prison system in which criminal gangs have infiltrated our prisons, running the contraband concession as a profit center. 


Gangs operate both in and out of prison. To survive in prison, gang membership is a necessity. Prisons have become a breeding ground for more criminality. Rather than reducing crime, prisons are increasing crime. 


So it's crucial to break this cycle and keep young people capable of rehabilitation from falling into the gang trap. Once there, it's almost impossible to escape. 


We're talking about a lot of souls. Twenty-nine thousand Mississippians are locked up in local, state and federal facilities. That's a four-fold increase over the last 30 years.  


So why does America, and Mississippi, lock up so many people compared to Europe and the rest of the world? Study after study has shown that America embraces a punitive approach while Europe embraces a rehabilitative approach. America spends $9 on incarceration for every one dollar on rehabilitation. In European countries, it's just the opposite. 


In Europe, prison sentences are shorter and the goal is to reintegrate the individual back into society as quickly as possible. In America, sentences are longer and reintegration is not considered a government function. 


Our nation's unique history is a factor: We had to conquer an indigenous people. Slavery was critical to the southern economy. Guns, whips and chains are part of our culture. 


Unfortunately, our punitive approach has created a permanently disconnected underclass. That breeds crime. 


Times change. Technology and better communication can be an engine of progress. Public policy research is more readily available. Bad policy is more quickly exposed. Movers and shakers are better equipped to move forward. Voters follow their lead. That's what's happening. 


About five years ago a new think tank emerged: FWD.us, funded by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and a dozen or more super rich finance and tech titans. FWD.us has feet on the ground in Mississippi. Staffers are actively working with state legislators to make reform a reality. 


It's an amazing coalition of both the left and the right, national and local. Not only is the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center on board, but also the conservative Koch brothers' Americans For Prosperity, Mississippi's Center for Public Policy, Empower Mississippi and Clergy for Prison Reform. 


Then there are individual crusaders like Christina Dent. Check out her podcasts. Her new nonprofit End It For Good deserves support. She is one of the most thoughtful and persuasive speakers I have ever heard. 


FWD.us targeted four states for reform: Mississippi, Arizona and Oklahoma for its high rate of incarceration and New York for its sheer number of prisoners. 


The first step was political: FWD.us commissioned a comprehensive poll revealing widespread discontent with our criminal justice system. Eighty percent of Mississippi believe it is important to "reduce the number of people who are in jail or prison." By a two to one margin, Mississippians believe incarceration increases crime. 


The poll was necessary to battle the knee jerk lock 'em up reaction of the typical state legislator. For decades, no legislator wanted to be seen as soft on crime. Penalties were heaped on penalties. Non-violent offenders began serving huge sentences without parole for technical parole violations and drug addiction. Finally, so many average Mississippians were affected through friends and extended family that opinion changed. 


As a columnist, I keep hearing horror stories. Last week a distraught mother, Lisa Moore, came to the Sun. Her 19-year-old ADHD son was sentenced to 50 years for breaking into cars. He will serve a minimum of 12 years before he gets parole. That's nuts. 


One lady was sentenced to five years without parole for one pill box of opioids. Three thousand Mississippians are in jail for technical violations such as not showing up for hearings, driving with suspended licenses, not paying fines and failing drug tests. So it goes. 


Mentally ill and addicts are sent to prison instead of treatment, making their already challenging conditions infinitely worse. 


In the early 1990s, I was co-chairman of the Metro Jackson Crime Commission with Wirt Yerger. The crack epidemic was raging, the crime rate was skyrocketing and we cried out for more incarceration and got it. I was co-chairman of Gov. Kirk Fordice's commission for criminal justice reform. We passed sweeping new laws bolstering victims rights. My anti-crime credentials are impeccable. 


But over the years I have learned that it is much more complicated. Research is finding better solutions. 


It is beyond the scope of this column to write about all the details of how House Bill 1352 addresses reform. It's a lengthy bill. As voters, we should encourage our representatives to keep moving forward. 


The FWD.us gurus, other think tank experts and the conferees are aware of the touch points. For example, people who are in minor trouble with the law are not very organized. Yet the legal system requires them to jump through all sorts of hoops under the threat of imprisonment. Reducing these hoops will lower the incarceration rate. Our current system is designed for failure and imprisonment. We need a reality-based system that gets people in crisis back on track, not stuck in jail. 


One example is suspending drivers licenses for minor drug possession and failure to pay fines. You can't function in Mississippi without a car, so people drive anyway, get caught and go to jail, setting them down a vicious spiral alienation, resentment and destruction. 


Make no mistake: Law abiding citizens need to be protected from truly violent, incorrigible criminals. But our incarceration of the non-violent depletes our resources to fight those genuine threats to public safety. 


This is not a new story. God gave Moses a lot of laws but we couldn't help but break them. The wages of sin was death. It got so bad God was about to wipe away humankind.  


God came up with a new plan. Christ came to earth, ushering in a new covenant based on grace, faith, forgiveness and redemption. Only then did mankind begin its slow climb out of barbarity. 


For a state that overwhelmingly professes Jesus as our King, we sure have an Old Testament criminal justice system. It didn't work very well for God. It's not working very well for Mississippi. 


Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]



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