Recognizing Racial Injustice in Incarceration | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Recognizing Racial Injustice in Incarceration

Criminal-justice reforms are not only necessary for cost savings to the state but also a necessity to work toward a more equitable justice system. The Legislature recognizes the cost-savings aspect of reforms, particularly in the midst of slashing the state budget for corporate tax cuts, but understanding who criminal-justice reforms impact is just as important as understanding how many pennies the state can save.

Leaders in the Mississippi Department of Corrections and prosecutors in the state have both expressed interest in more community corrections and the necessity of alternative programs for inmates with addiction and mental-health conditions. The shift in mentality needs to be followed with dollars. We cannot continue to incarcerate men and women who are in need of treatment for their substance abuse or trauma-induced mental-health conditions.

The Corrections and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force continued to monitor the implementation of the state's big criminal justice reform legislation after its implementation in 2014, and it continues to see opportunities to improve Mississippi's incarceration system. The task force will present its report to leaders on Dec. 12, asking them to consider specific appropriations for transitional housing, encouraging mental-health courts and community corrections, as well as increasing the capacity of drug courts statewide. Alternatives to incarceration in a 24-hour facility are significantly cheaper, so cost savings are not arguable.

The people of Mississippi and future generations are at stake. As of Nov. 1, 63 percent of inmates in MDOC's custody are African American. Black males alone make up 60 percent of inmates. Reforms are important and critical because these numbers are echoed to the younger generation. The 2015 Division of Youth Services report shows that 63 percent of youth referred to youth court for delinquent acts are African American.

The rates of incarceration almost equal the inverse of the state's population demographics: African Americans make up 37 percent of Mississippi's population, 2015 census data show, but they make up 63 percent of our adult- and youth-corrections population. The only systemic way to stop these cycles in their tracks is at the highest level: policy. Or as the president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, John H. Jackson, says: "Programs are progress, but policy is power."

The Legislature holds the keys and the power to change the trajectory of corrections in the state. With great power comes great opportunity: an opportunity to change the outlook for more than 10,000 kids (some as young as 7 years old) who are already involved with the justice system. New policies mean investments, but if it's the future of the state at risk, it's worth it. The Legislature needs to not only address the task force's recommendations and fund them for adult corrections but also needs to address desperately needed reforms at the youth-court level as well. Future generations of Mississippians depend on this progress; it's time to act like it.

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