Crime and punishment is central to civilized society. Not surprisingly, Jackson is grappling with this very problem.
I attended a recent day-long symposium at the Civil Rights Museum on criminal justice reform. One Mississippi district attorney said these words and they stuck in my mind. “People don’t stop to think how long a year in prison is.”
Indeed, a year in prison to someone used to being free is a very, very long time. It’s enough to teach a person a lesson.
In Mississippi, we have two contradictory problems: a high crime rate and a high prison population. How can this be? You’d think a high prison population would translate into a low crime rate.
Therein lies both the problem and the solution to our crime problem. We are putting a few people in jail for a long time while not putting enough people in jail for a short time.
I’ve seen this happen time and time again as a reporter. A criminal, typically young and male, commits a minor offense and doesn’t get punished. This keeps happening as the criminal gets bolder and bolder, testing the system. Eventually, the criminal commits a serious crime like an armed robbery and ends up sentenced to 20 years in prison.
People read about this in the news and wonder why the criminal committed five or six crimes before he was ever punished. The public gets mad and calls for more jail time.
Then the legislature, responding to the anger of the public, increases jail time for sentences and no parole. This ends up filling up our prisons with a few criminals, leaving no room to jail the many minor criminals. It’s the worst possible way to run a criminal justice system.
It leaves the many minor criminals on the street, continuing to wreak havoc without punishment, until they finally cross a line and get sentenced for decades. Makes no sense.
If we properly adjudicated and punished the minor crimes, then we would not have to put nearly as many criminals away for life. They would learn their lesson much earlier. People don’t realize just how long a year in prison is.
So how do we fix this?
The first step is for the public to have a clear understanding of the problem and its causes. This is why I am writing.
The public is crucial because it is the public voters who put pressure on the legislature, which in turn, passes laws that create the problem.
We have put the legislature in charge of sentencing crimes in Mississippi. This was a mistake. It should be the judges who make these decisions, not the legislature.
This is not rocket science. Everyone knows that the further you get away from a problem, the less you know the correct solution. Local government is almost always more responsive than centralized government. In this case, the judges and local DAs are the local government. It is the legislature and the governor who are the remote, centralized government.
A classic example is the state law requiring a person be sentenced for life if they commit more than three crimes. This is a classic example of the legislature usurping the local judges’ discretion on jail sentencing.
Mississippi media has reported dozens examples of people sentenced for life for minor crimes because it was a third offense. Often, the other two offenses were committed decades before.
Bad laws like this fill up our prisons with non-threatening criminals leaving no prison space for young criminals that need to be taught a lesson early and quickly.
This is what the whole prison reform movement is moving towards. Commendably, the legislature is reversing course and putting more discretion back in the hands of local judges and prosecutors. Parole has been reinstated. There have been some improvements to the “three strikes you’re out” statutes.
What the public can do is be supportive. Legislators are terrified of being labeled soft on crime so they are hesitant to make these much-needed reforms. The public needs to acknowledge that its knee-jerk reaction to crime is a big part of the problem. Lock ‘em up forever and throw away the key may feel good but it only makes things worse in the long run.
Many crimes are committed by rebellious youth, typically males. Any parent who has raised a son can relate. You want to teach your son a lesson, but not destroy his future. This is the same approach we need to have toward youthful crime.
What does that look like? That’s means shoplifting should not be a slap on the wrist but 30 days in jail. Better teach the lesson quick and early, than allow the young person to think crime pays.
Instead, shoplifting and numerous minor crimes go virtually unpunished while major crimes are punished with decades in jail.
A lot of minor crimes are committed by the mentally ill. These people need treatment, not jail time.
Of course there are long-term hardened criminals who can never be reformed. These are the people for whom long-term sentences make sense. But there is less room for them because so many mentally ill and minor criminals are taking up precious jail space.
Our state prison system is called the Mississippi Department of Corrections, yet correcting currently has little to do with it. We need to change that. The key is to punish, but not so much as to permanently alienate the individual from society. Alienation leads to gangs and alternative lifestyles that are a long-term threat to our law-abiding society. We simply cannot afford to give up on anyone but the most hardened criminals.
And when we do incarcerate someone, they should be immersed in programs to improve themselves, train them for productive employment and move them along a path of productive citizenship.