Celebrate Progress, Yet Push Forward on Criminal Justice Reform | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Celebrate Progress, Yet Push Forward on Criminal Justice Reform

Rev. CJ Rhodes, who is president of Clergy for Prison Reform, speaks at the Mississippi Capitol on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, calling for an overhaul of incarceration practices in the state.

Rev. CJ Rhodes, who is president of Clergy for Prison Reform, speaks at the Mississippi Capitol on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, calling for an overhaul of incarceration practices in the state.

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Rev. CJ Rhodes

Clergy for Prison Reform applauds the Mississippi Legislature for its continued efforts to improve the criminal justice system in our state. Over the last several years, lawmakers have demonstrated courageousness by enacting common-sense laws that focus on morality, and not just money. As citizens, we have been proud to boast about the Mississippi criminal-justice reforms, setting an example for other southern states. Yet, there is still work to do.

Since CPR’s inception in March 2015, the organization has advocated for a more holistic and humane approach to incarceration and remediation. A diverse group of Christian pastors and community leaders w ho represent theological and political conservatives, moderates, progressives and libertarians join hands and hearts to advocate for a system that considers both the human and fiscal cost of an unjust criminal-justice system.

On Tuesday, March 7, CPR will hold its second annual Policy Summit at the State Capitol, where members of the clergy from across the Mississippi will advance its 2017 policy platform. We urge the legislation to consider the following.

Mississippians suffering from drug addiction and mental illness do not belong in prison. CPR supports the reclassification of low-level simple drug possession as a misdemeanor and other measures that focus on rehabilitation and healing over incarceration. We support the use of prison alternatives such as drug courts for those convicted of nonviolent offenses.

Mississippi should reform its habitual-offender statute to ensure that nonviolent offenders do not spend the rest of their lives behind bars. CPR supports limiting the crimes that trigger sentencing enhancements. A defendant’s sentence should only be enhanced under the most serious circumstances, when someone has multiple convictions for crimes of violence. CPR supports redemption and forgiveness for all of God’s children. A person’s mistakes should not follow them for the rest of their lives. CPR also supports the creation of a “cleansing period” for prior convictions after a period of time following the person’s reentry into society, as well as not allowing past juvenile convictions to trigger longer prison stays as an adult.

Mississippi must pass state legislation to end the operation of debtors’ prisons. CPR supports bail reform because individuals should not lose their freedom simply because they are too poor to afford bail or other court fines and fees

Mississippians deserve a chance for redemption and an opportunity to fulfill God’s purpose for their lives. CPR supports expanding parole eligibility to individuals who do not have a history of violence and have served a significant portion of their sentence.

The JFP's 'Preventing Violence' Series

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.

As citizens of this great state and religious leaders in our communities, we will continue striving for better ways to reduce crime, recidivism and community disintegration—which includes actively engaging with the legislative process. This issue extends beyond the criminal-justice system. Adequate education, community investment, economic opportunities, and spiritual and moral formation, among other things, are necessary elements in holistic criminal-justice reform.

This is not simply about math—it is about God’s men, women and children. We are grateful for the Legislature’s commitment to improving communities and furthering justice, and we pray that this will be an opportunity to build on previous gains our state has made. Ultimately, we must extend the same love, forgiveness and opportunities for redemption to others as God has done for us.

Rehabilitating incarcerated people makes moral and fiscal sense. We have proven that we can lower the prison population while preserving public safety. Legislators have an opportunity to directly impact the lives of tens of thousands of Mississippians.

We are moving in the right direction, but we still have much more to do. We must push forward. CPR has faith that Mississippi’s political leadership will make the right decision—they will put God’s people before politics.

The Rev. CJ Rhodes is President of Clergy for Prison Reform and pastor at Mount Helm Baptist Church. Read the JFP's "Preventing Violence" series at jfp.ms/preventingviolence.

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