Tuesday, January 22, 2019
JACKSON Room 113 at the Mississippi Legislature was standing-room only on Jan 21, 2018, where a plethora of public officials, mostly state representatives and law-enforcement officials, gathered among Roman-esque columns. The topic was anything but routine. As Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall pointed out, criminal-justice reform is now at the "heartbeat of the national conversation."
After years of tough-on-crime approaches to arrests and filling prison, conservatives have joined the bandwagon for some types of reform to how America incarcerates its people. Texas, Georgia, New Jersey and Kentucky have all passed significant reforms within the past year to fight mandatory-minimum sentences and invest time, effort and resources into social programming and workforce training within state prisons.
ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center representatives, circuit-court judges, state prosecutors, and Hall herself all made their way to the microphone to essentially answer one question posed for the gathering: "What is the most effective way that Mississippi can reform its criminal justice system?"
'Reentry Begins at Arrest'
Commissioner Hall was the first to approach the podium to share her recommendations.
"Re-entry begins at arrest," she said, explaining that the Department of Corrections supports those who have fallen through holes in various government systems. However, Hall said, understaffing and a low budget are the most overwhelming obstacles facing her administration. House Bill 585 became law in 2014 and, with additional legislation later, has helped reduce Mississippi's prison population by 11 percent, no small victory for the state with one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation.
However, prison rates have started creeping back up in the state, as additional reforms have stalled at the governor's desk.
Reducing the prison population means less expensive prisons, meaning that money that would pay to house inmates remains with the state. Hall, with resounding support, made her case for the state to reinvest these funds back into corrections in the form of higher salaries for officers and social programs to help inmates transform into resourceful and productive citizens of Mississippi.
"House Bill 585 will be for naught if we do not reinvest into corrections," Hall said in her closing remarks.
'Set Up By the Wealthy to Benefit the Wealthy'
Jennifer Riley-Collins of the American Civil Liberties Union followed Hall. After citing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision in honor of his holiday, Collins went to bat for the nearly 12,000 individuals held in Mississippi jails because they cannot afford bail.
A full archive of the JFP's "Preventing Violence" series, supported by grants from the Solutions Journalism Network. Photo of Zeakyy Harrington by Imani Khayyam.
"This is a system set up by the wealthy to benefit the wealthy," Collins said. "Wealthy people can use their house as collateral, write a check, swipe a credit card, but when your family chooses between food and getting you out of jail, you stay."
Collins recommended pre-trial models that have already been adopted in states like Kentucky that can ensure that people return to court without locking them up.
Get Off My Back and Give Me a Skill
Near the end of the session, the committee heard from Jameson Taylor, chairman of the Governor's Faith Advisory Council. Taylor told the story of Richard Chunn, a bail bondsman with a criminal record.
"Richard Chunn made mistakes which lead to an arrest for marijuana possession. After being released, Chunn decided to license himself to become a bondsman for the state of Mississippi, Taylor said. "However, in 2011, this legislature passed a bill which disqualified him from his position due to an arrest far in Chunn's past."
Chunn eventually appealed his case, and after a ruling determining a violation of his 14th Amendment rights, he was allowed to work again.
Taylor used this story to illustrate that many people all over our state are unable to apply for licenses, take classes, pass exams because of a criminal record. Policies made on a mentality of punishment, he said, keep people in cycles of poverty, which is inextricably linked to crime.