One of the few areas where Democrats and Republicans have been forging a consensus is on changing America’s punitive and expensive approach to criminal justice.
In Congress and in most state legislatures, there has been a recognition that this country has been locking up too many people for too long. People on both sides of the political aisle — whether driven by tight budgets or humanitarian concerns — have been working for the last several years to scale back this draconian approach to crime.
Unfortunately, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves still hasn’t gotten the message that something is wrong about a state that has the third-highest incarceration rate in a nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Last week, the Republican vetoed Senate Bill 2123, which would have allowed nonviolent offenders to be considered for parole after completing 25% of their sentence and most violent offenders after completing 50% of theirs. The legislation, although it was introduced by a group of Democratic senators, won majority support in both of the Republican-controlled chambers.
Although Reeves, in his veto message, said the reform went too far, it’s important to emphasize what the bill did and did not do. It made thousands of offenders eligible for parole earlier, but it did not mandate that they be given it. Only that their case be considered.
Those who sit on the Parole Board could still deny early release for any inmate whose behavior behind bars did not merit it or whose crime was such that it would pose a substantial risk to the public to let the person out any sooner than necessary.
Reeves’ veto is a throwback to the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality that drove up the cost of corrections and has decimated many low-income neighborhoods.
As Mississippi’s prisons are currently constituted, being behind bars is more likely to produce a hardened criminal than a rehabilitated one. The conditions in many of the prisons, both those operated by the state and those operated by private contractors, are deplorable. The gangs run them as much as the overwhelmed and underpaid prison guards do. Reeves hired a new corrections commissioner, Burl Cain, who is being asked to bring order to the chaos. But even if Cain is a miracle worker, his job would be made easier if Mississippi locked up a smaller share of its population.
A lower incarceration rate would save money and allow more resources to be put into rehabilitating offenders, many of whose crimes are driven by addiction or some other mental illness. It’s disappointing that Reeves is not on board.