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Crime may be a problem, but...

Crime may be a problem, but overincarceration is not the solution

By: Wil Ervin - May 14, 2023

Mississippi has a crime problem.

Conservatives in the state are rightly concerned about it. FBI data showed a 66% increase in Mississippi’s homicide rate from 2017 to 2020, though other sources suggest the number of homicides in 2023, specifically in Jackson, may be on the decline.

The conversation about criminal justice in Mississippi should begin and end with public
safety, and it is clear that current policies are not adequately addressing the problem.

Mississippi also has an overincarceration problem. This is yet another indicator of a broken
justice system; a system that has failed to make Mississippi safer, stretched the state budget,
and adversely impacted Mississippi families and communities.

The answer to Mississippi’s public safety woes is not more incarceration.

It is clear the “tough-on-crime” policies intended to incarcerate us to safety simply have not
worked. In 2016, Mississippi ranked third in the nation in imprisonment rate. We have since
climbed to first in the world.

If incarceration was the answer to improving public safety, Mississippi should be the safest
place in the world.

During that time, however, Mississippi has not become safer. The state’s homicide and violent
crime rates increased by more than 50% and 8% between 2010 and 2020, respectively. Despite
the unfortunate distinction of being the world leader in inmates per capita, the state has seemingly become less safe.

It is incredibly expensive to maintain such a large prison population. Nationally, the prison system costs states over $50 billion per year according to Right on Crime. The Mississippi
Department of Corrections (MDOC) budget is one of the largest in the state, now exceeding
$400 million, up from $337 million in 2017.

There is also a human cost to overincarceration. Evidence suggests overincarceration negatively
impacts families and children. When large numbers of people are locked up, families are torn
apart. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to struggle in school and experience
poverty and other negative outcomes. Additionally, when individuals are released from prison,
they often face barriers to employment and housing, which can make it difficult for them to
successfully re-enter society.

Empower Mississippi has proposed solutions to both combat crime and reduce incarceration
rates. Instead of expanding incarceration, we recommend:

  • Properly funding law enforcement and ensuring that the money is used to attract, pay
    well, and properly train officers. This will allow for more community-based policing
    approaches that have been shown to build trust and deter crime.
  • Prioritizing limited resources on violent crime reduction. In 2021, 73% of prison
    admissions were for drug or other nonviolent crimes. Certainly, drug and non-violent
    offenses should not be ignored; we believe criminals should be held accountable for
    their actions. However, preventing and solving violent crimes should be given the
    highest priority.
  • Addressing mental health and addiction issues at the community level. A recent report
    by the Corrections and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force points to national evidence
    that “suggests as many as 65% of people in prison have a diagnosable substance use
    disorder and another 20% were using drugs when they committed the offense that led
    to incarceration”. Further, 22% of individuals incarcerated in MS are there for drug
    offenses. Most of them aren’t people selling drugs. In fact, almost 91% of drug violations
    in 2022 were for possessing/concealing or using/consuming, while less than 6% were for
    distributing/selling. We should talk more about providing substance use disorder and
    mental health services than expanding incarceration and lengthening sentences.
  • Enhancing and expanding programs that prepare those in prison to transition
    successfully back into the community. It is estimated that more than 95% of the prison
    population will ultimately re-enter society. Work-release programs have been shown to
    effectively combat recidivism and improve public safety. We should continue and
    expand work-release opportunities for individuals who can safely re-enter society.
    In addition to these recommendations, addressing public safety and overincarceration must
    involve effective parole policies.

While Mississippi’s incarceration rate has climbed nearly 4% since December 2019, our parole grant rate has plummeted. After reaching an 83% mark in October 2019, the parole grant rate was 37.6% for calendar year 2022 according to a recent report. This marked reduction in the parole grant rate has undoubtedly contributed to Mississippi’s current overincarceration problem, and we should look at ways to safely transition more parole-eligible individuals back into society. Early indications suggest this number may have risen quite significantly through the first quarter of 2023. If so, this is a trend we hope to see continue.

Conservatives are committed to addressing the violent crime problem in Mississippi, but we
should also be committed to tackling overincarceration. The two are not mutually exclusive,
and both issues harm Mississippians. By enacting meaningful criminal justice reform, Mississippi
can create a more just system that promotes public safety, supports families and communities,
and reduces the cost to taxpayers. We urge Mississippi lawmakers to take action to address
overincarceration and build a criminal justice system that is effective and efficient.

About the Author(s)
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Wil Ervin

Wil Ervin is the Senior Vice President at Empower Mississippi. In his role, he leads Empower’s strategy development, public policy team, government affairs and advocacy efforts.
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