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Criminal justice reform gains momentum

One of the most disturbing statistics for our country is the sky-high incarceration rate. America has by far the highest incarceration rates in the world.

Mississippi and France have similar standards of living. But the incarceration rate in Mississippi is 10 times higher than France. Mississippi locks up 843 people out of 100,000. France locks up 99. Ireland and England lock up 80. Most African countries have incarceration rates around 50.

Basically, U.S. incarceration rates are 10 times higher than the rest of the world. How can this be?

Nearly all of the countries with relatively high incarceration rates share the experience of recent large-scale internal conflict. But the United States, which has enjoyed a long history of political stability and hasn’t had a civil war in over a century and a half, tops the list.

Six of the U.S. states with the lowest incarceration rates — Utah, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts — have higher incarceration rates than countries that have experienced major 20th century social traumas, including several former Soviet republics and South Africa. The two U.S. states that incarcerate the least are Vermont and Massachusetts, but if those states became independent nations, they would rank as the 11th and 12th greatest users of incarceration on the planet.

Prison reform is happening in Mississippi. Our Republican government’s sweet spot is managing the budget and the Republican leadership was alarmed at the skyrocketing cost of incarceration. This led to a prison reform package four years ago, relaxing mandatory sentencing and increasing parole. After the reforms, Mississippi’s prison population declined from 22,237 to 17,900. But it has since crept back up to 19,102. The state saved $40 million a year, but rather than go into prison education, the money went into the general fund.

This past legislative session saw more criminal justice reforms. A new law requires judges to waive fines and fees if the accused can’t afford to pay. Far too many people are thrown in jail because they can’t afford the fines. That reform will reduce that.

A couple of weeks ago, California became the first state to eliminate cash bail. Instead, a judge can only impose bail if there is a serious flight risk. In Jackson’s Hinds County jail, dozens of inmates are behind bars without any indictments because they had no money for bail. Debtors prisons are simply wrong.

The politics are aligning for more reform. On the left, you have well-funded groups like the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. On the right, you have groups like Americans for Prosperity and other free market groups that see the prison industry as a massively ineffective government bureaucracy.

I remember when Jackson crime exploded in the early ’90s with the crack epidemic. People were scared and a “lock them up” mentality was adopted. I was on that bandwagon. It worked and crime went down. Indeed, if you lock up enough people, crime will go down. It’s not like crimes are not being committed.

Law-abiding citizens must be protected from violent criminals, but the failed war on drugs has created a huge number of incarcerated addicts. They need treatment more than incarceration.

The cost of our prison system is huge. If we spent more money on rehabilitation, it would ultimately be money well spent. Any decrease in recidivism would create a huge return both in the cost of crime and the betterment of our society.

Our prisons are hellholes. A third of the prisoners are mentally ill. They need treatment, education and rehabilitation. Instead, they are caged like worthless animals. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and a sad legacy for our country.

We can do better. If Mississippi and the United States want to claim leadership of the civilized, developed world. we must break this historically rooted cycle of crime and incarceration.

Wyatt Emmerich is a columnist, writer and publisher in Jackson. He can be reached at wyatt@northsidesun.com.