This commentary was originally featured in the Clarion Ledger on March 7, 2018.
When I was invited to Mississippi to meet with policy leaders and discuss productive ways to address the national opioid epidemic, I leaped at the opportunity. At Americans for Prosperity’s reception and at the Clergy for Prison Reform’s Third Annual Policy Summit, I learned about the great strides the good state of Mississippi has made in developing effective crime and drug control strategies.
I approach these issues having worn a tailored suit as a criminal defense lawyer, an orange jumpsuit as an inmate, and as a felon with regret and shame for my crimes. In 2011 my 20-year battle with addiction led me to make a disastrous decision to drive under the influence. I seriously hurt someone and tried to lie my way out of it. I was sentenced to six years and served roughly a year and a half before I was paroled. In prison, I witnessed the gaps in the system firsthand and truly understood why so many who want a second chance, fail nonetheless.
I am pleased to hear that two smart criminal justice reform bills are pending this week in the Senate — specifically HB 387 and SB 2841. Considered together, these bills emphasize meaningful recovery and rehabilitation opportunities over simply warehousing nonviolent offenders. They recognize that some nonviolent offenders in prison turn their lives around, exhibit exemplary behavior, and transform their lives, indicating they are prepared to reenter society through a merit-based release program.
This legislative package also expands prerelease vocational programs, which would enhance an inmate’s ultimate employability. HB 387 requires flexible parole supervision to accommodate an individual’s work schedule — one of the most important factors for successful reentry. When I was in prison, very few inmates asked me for money, but virtually all asked me to help them get a job. Many of these men simply wanted the dignity of work but had no path to achieve that goal.
Additionally, HB 387 creates a rational framework for dealing with people who might relapse or violate a technical parole requirement. And finally, HB 387 restricts the rampant abuse of debt collection related to fines and fees someone simply cannot pay. These old fines generate arrest warrants that law enforcement officers will serve, and prevent ex-offenders from securing drivers licenses which are often necessary for work. When a person is arrested for these old warrants it disrupts the continuity of treatment and productivity. For those who were lucky enough to have a job, they face almost certain termination when they miss work because they are in jail dealing with their fines. I am hopeful those bills make it to the Governor’s desk to be signed.
These bills recognize that people make mistakes but must have an opportunity to pick up the pieces and move on with life. The evidence has demonstrated that effective treatment interventions, incentives to complete programs, and pathways from prison to paycheck makes us all safer by reducing recidivism. Many of these interventions also free law enforcement to pursue more serious crimes.
Ninety-five percent of inmates will be released at some point, and effective reentry policy translates into safer communities, lower prison costs, and increased employment opportunities. I want my colleagues in Mississippi to become familiar with Safe Streets & Second Chances (S3C), a new reentry initiative led by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Right on Crime, along with Koch Industries and Florida State University.
This initiative brings together researchers and practitioners from the public and private sectors to help identify and implement proven reentry interventions and services.
My life’s work is now committed to recovery, reentry, and reintegration, and I think about how I would not have committed my crimes if I was in recovery. Just as we must hold offenders accountable for their actions, we must hold the criminal justice system accountable for producing a better public safety return on our precious tax dollars.
Effective reentry begins with effective legislation, and I am encouraged by Mississippi’s commitment to both. I thank the courageous leaders in the Mississippi legislature for proposing SB 2841 and HB 387. We can save tomorrow’s victims with today’s reentry interventions.