Things Can Change, Mississippi

Mississippi's prison system is in desperate need of reform. Under "tough on crime" legislation like increased zero-tolerance penalties for minor drug offenses and the 85-percent rule, which mandate that prisoners serve 85 percent of their sentences prior to parole eligibility, the state's prison population and incarceration rates exploded. The 85-percent rule was updated in 2008 to only include violent crimes, but between 1994 and 2007, the number of prisoners jumped by 105 percent, from 11,250 inmates in 1994 to 22,800 in 2007. Most of the men and women behind bars in Mississippi are serving sentences for non-violent crimes, and the rate of incarcerations, 738 per 100,000 people, is the second highest in the nation, just behind Louisiana.

Bad legislation is only part of the problem, however. Private prisons are a burgeoning industry in the U.S., and like all most businesses, they aim to increase shareholder profits, often to the detriment of those they supposedly serve. Pitiful salaries, under-staffing and cherry-picking the least troublesome convicts all make the industry money, but do little to rehabilitate prisoners. Industry lobbyists work for even tougher legislation while leaving the most dangerous, least healthy and hardest-core offenders for the state to deal with.

No politician wants to be labeled "soft on crime," a tag sure to lose votes in conservative circles. Even judges, those supposedly neutral arbiters of justice, run on tough-on-crime platforms. But exactly that mentality is locking the door on citizens while private prisons profit.

During a discussion panel at the ACLU's Criminal Justice Conference this month, Mississippi Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, and Sen. Johnnie Walls Jr., D-Greenville, forecast a bleak outlook for modifying sentencing laws and shortening sentences. Walls and Hines claimed that type of legislation would never make it out of committee and had little chance of passing. Their surrender to the current status quo is a prime example of the disappointing attitudes our elected officials have toward reforming Mississippi's criminal justice system.

Other states, including South Carolina, are adopting legislation that lowers sentencing terms due to cash-strapped state budgets. Last month, the South Carolina Legislature passed a bill that provides oversight and educational opportunities to non-violent offenders instead of prolonged prison terms. The bi-partisan support for the bill came down to the math: It costs the state $14,500 a year to incarcerate someone compared to just $2,000 for supervised probation.

It's a different day, Mississippi, and every taxpayer dime needs to be spent with intelligence and clarity toward progress. Now is the time to reform our prison system and shift funds to education instead of incarceration. Our sane voices need to be heard—loud and clear—in the Legislature: Things can change in Mississippi; make it happen.

Previous Comments


Mass Incarceration of Blacks and Latinos in the so-called Age of Colorblindness is the New Jim Crow, or should I say the Jim Grow, Jr. This is why some judges have no problem throwing these people away for drug crimes, other non-violent crimes and on weak cases. It's the new mode of social control, especially down south.



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