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No, conservative criminal justice...

No, conservative criminal justice reforms have not caused crime increases

By: Forest Thigpen - June 21, 2023

Forest Thigpen

Conservatives are rightly committed to improving public safety in Mississippi. However, doing so does not have to mean doubling down on the ineffective policies of the past.

Contrary to some recent assertions, conservative criminal justice reforms have not led to increases in violent crime. 

We agree with fellow conservatives that criminals should be held accountable for their actions. “Swift and sure” consequences are effective at both prevention and punishment; “catch-and-release” policies are not. We need more police who are well-paid and well-trained, and we need prosecutors who prioritize the most serious crimes.

We also agree that incarceration is a necessary part of the justice system. It is unreasonable to believe that Mississippi should abolish prisons. For some criminals, punishment by prison is necessary and appropriate. Violent people, especially repeat violent offenders, should be locked up for a long time.

However, some have suggested that recent increases in violent crime are due to conservative criminal justice reforms enacted over the last decade. We reject that notion, and there is ample evidence to support our position. 

First, the most significant violent crime increases in our region over the past decade occurred in two states that did not enact reforms like those enacted in Mississippi. And Texas, which has been even more aggressive than Mississippi in enacting prison reforms, is one of the few states that saw a decrease in violent crime.

While some, though not all, types of violent crime have risen, those crime increases do not coincide in time with Mississippi’s two largest criminal justice reforms, which were enacted in 2014 and 2021. In fact, in four of the first five years following the 2014 reforms, the violent crime rate in Mississippi was lower than in 2014. The spike in violent crime began in our state, as it did in almost every state in the nation, in 2020, a year before 2021 reforms.

Mississippi’s homicide rate spiked more than other states in our region. Naturally, that is a cause for concern. But that also is not due to the reforms passed since 2014. People convicted of murder were not made eligible for parole in those reforms.

Moreover, the sudden rise in Mississippi’s homicide rate was driven largely by the doubling of the murder rate in the city of Jackson. Some suggest that the increase in Jackson’s homicide rate is the result of criminal justice reforms, but this doesn’t add up. If these reforms, which were statewide, were a driver of increased homicide rates, the geographic results would not be as isolated. 

Recent analysis also suggests that Jackson’s homicide rate may be on the decline. 

Some have also pointed to a reduction in the state’s prison population between 2016 and 2022 as evidence that parole reforms have caused crime increases. However, this incarceration statistic is misleading. The state’s prison population actually increased slightly through January 2020 before dropping considerably in 2020 and 2021. This drastic decrease was not the result of criminal justice reforms. Rather, the non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative attributes this decrease to COVID-related changes in arrest and jail practices, court slowdowns, and the refusal of some prisons to accept transfers from jails. 

Absent long-term policy changes, the Prison Population Initiative predicted a return to pre-pandemic incarceration levels. We are currently seeing that play out in Mississippi. Since January 2022, the custody population has increased more than 15%. It is currently almost 5% higher than it was in January 2016 and exceeds pre-pandemic levels.

Mississippi lawmakers, to their credit, have undertaken efforts to enact legislation intended to reduce both crime and incarceration. Unfortunately, some of those changes have not been fully implemented or have been underutilized. The conservative Nolan Center for Justice points out that there are several laws already on the books that Mississippi could use to safely address overincarceration. It’s difficult to argue that criminal justice reforms have caused more crime when significant reforms have yet to be fully put in place. 

Conservatives are rightly committed to improving public safety in Mississippi. However, doing so does not have to mean doubling down on the ineffective policies of the past. After all, if incarceration was the answer to improving public safety, Mississippi should be the safest place in the world to live. We can enact policies that both combat crime and reduce incarceration as many other conservative states have successfully done.  

In Mississippi, we should strive to make our justice system one that promotes public safety, fosters fairness and accountability, reduces Mississippi’s world-leading incarceration rate safely and sensibly, and responsibly stewards taxpayer dollars.  

About the Author(s)
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Forest Thigpen

Forest Thigpen currently serves as Senior Advisor at Empower Mississippi. Thigpen has built his career encouraging and equipping policy makers to govern by principle – to do what’s right rather than what is politically expedient. After serving ten years in Washington DC in various roles for U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, Thigpen returned to his home state and served as president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy for 25 years.
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