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.
JACKSON Clergy for Prison Reform, a group of faith leaders from throughout the state, recently released a policy platform concerning pending legislation related to criminal justice. The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi fully supports its platform.
Rather than measuring success by projecting reduced costs, CPR is speaking from a moral platform that demands immediacy. CPR’s moral authority is important because it humanizes incarcerated individuals, their families and their communities, and we hope that serves as an important reminder to lawmakers that inconvenient topics shouldn’t be set aside for next session. Justice delayed is, in fact, justice denied.
Too often, legislators, policy experts and even advocates in the policy arena lose touch of the urgency these issues deserve. We applauded important criminal justice reforms passed into law two years ago, but legislative action building upon those reforms is long overdue. In January, I stood outside the Capitol with a group of more than a hundred Mississippians protesting for prison reform.
The protesters were disproportionately African American women—mothers, wives, girlfriends and daughters of an incarcerated loved one. Several of those women were advocating for rehabilitative programs. They were unfortunate enough to have loved ones serving their sentence in a private prison, operating in a manner prioritizing its fiduciary duty to shareholders over the well-being of inmates and public safety. SB 2512—by requiring bidders for private prison contracts demonstrate that they would achieve lower recidivism rates than MDOC—would make sure that any private prison corporation who wants to do business in our state must actually prioritize rehabilitation.
Many of the protesters have had loved ones taken from their communities and placed in prison to serve draconian sentences. If their brother was convicted of a crime before HB 585 was passed, the law arbitrarily denies him the same opportunity for parole as someone convicted a few months later. HB 585 made moral and fiscal sense, and there’s no reason to unfairly limit its benefit to a few. SB 2791 would allow for the law to be amended in order to extend HB 585 parole reforms to people convicted of an offense before July 1, 2014.
Disturbingly, it’s not just that legislators aren’t expanding on HB 585, but there are active bills that would actually chip away at the progress made. Before HB 585, far too many people in our prisons were there for technical violations while on probation or parole, but in 2014, we joined a national trend away from those policies. HB 107 would have us return to the overly harsh and costly practice of over-incarcerating people for minor supervision violations.
In 2014, the legislature decided that enough was enough. Mass incarceration within our state had become financially unbearable. We shamefully had the second highest incarceration rate in the country, and the most recent statistics rank us at fifth. We made progress because we rationally raised thresholds for when someone should serve serious time. HB 574 seeks to lower that threshold for a petty property offense. Doing so would needlessly impose a felony conviction for a shoplifting offense that would be a misdemeanor in most other states. Moreover, evidence does not suggest that there is added deterrence. Essentially, HB 574 exemplifies the “tough on crime” policies that filled our prisons and did little to reduce crime.
CPR’s platform also advocates for amending three house bills. HB 705 intends to add rehab facilities to the list of buildings that trigger enhanced penalties, and CPR is pushing for an amendment to limit the scope of drug-free enhancement zones that arbitrarily increase punishment for drug crimes. Either the radius of these zones should be reduced, or there should be a mens rea element to ensure that the enhancement zone isn’t just another tool prosecutors use to overcharge defendants.
CPR is also advocating for an amendment to HB 701 that would correct an oversight in the law that provides harsher punishment for conspiring to commit a drug crime than for actually committing that same crime.
Finally, CPR has called for an amendment to HB 783 to provide judges—rather than prosecutors —the discretion to depart from a mandatory minimum sentence imposed by the “little” habitual offender statute.
The deadline for the House and Senate committees to address these issues and heed the thoughtful advice of CPR is rapidly approaching. CPR has presented the legislature with a reasonable and fair policy agenda, and passing it into law is the right thing to do.