"As a Christian, I believe in the sanctity of the life of all humans. As a Republican, I believe in small government. Nothing about mass incarceration is small government."
The fact that Republican Rep. Joel Bomgar uttered those words at the state capitol shouldn't have been so surprising and gratifying, but it was. Such a statement shouldn't come as a surprise because it makes so much sense regardless of party or religious faith, but in our polarized state and nation, it is mighty refreshing to hear a conservative of faith stand up against truly odious criminal-justice policies that trap men of color, particularly, into cycles of generational poverty and mass incarceration.
We certainly applaud the Rev. C.J. Rhodes, longtime friend of this newspaper and an occasional columnist, for organizing this Clergy for Prison Reform call for private-prison and parole reform in Mississippi. They were there to magnify "the voices of those incarcerated, muffled by so many competing interests at the Capitol," Rhodes said at the press conference.
It's encouraging to see conservatives like Bomgar hearing these cries for help, in an effort that brings together a variety of groups, including the ACLU, to start repairing our criminal-justice system. This broken system starts cycling young people of color into a "cradle-to-prison" pipeline from an early age, and often for lesser "crimes" for which whites are punished much less harshly.
They are often pushed into a under-educated detention-center system that can contribute directly to recidivism and often end up in private prisons build for profit, not rehabilitation. It is an unacceptable system, and Mississippi has made some progress. Back in 2014, the Legislature enacted reforms that made it harder to make people who committed lesser offenses do hard time.
But there is much more to do in a state where being tough-on-crime is actually more important than preventing crime, where mugshots of minor suspects often lead the evening news (whether those children are ultimately guilty or not), and where the conditions of our jails and detention centers are traditionally deplorable.
And the treatment of young people of color who do something wrong? It's often deplorable with adults calling for them to be sent to adult prison—without understanding that this cycle actually makes it more likely that they will commit more and worse crimes. Or that conditions including poverty (and exposure to lead) make young people more likely to engage in criminal activity.
The Jackson Free Press is kicking off a juvenile-justice project in upcoming weeks with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network. This summer's expanded Mississippi Youth Media Project will also focus on juvenile-justice issues. We will combine powerful human stories with data reporting, as well as vetting of potential solutions, to help Mississippians make wiser decisions about criminal-justice reform, as well as how to ensure that children do not choose a life of crime.
Please email ideas, solutions and story tips for either of these projects to [email protected] We welcome your help. Let's collaborate for a safer, healthier Mississippi.