This commentary was originally featured in the Clarion Ledger on February 26, 2018.
Mississippi lawmakers have impressed conservative policy leaders around the country with their commitment to smart justice policies. Smart justice means protecting public safety by using taxpayer dollars wisely to get the best outcomes from our criminal justice system.
Mississippi has been leading the way since 2014 when Governor Phil Bryant championed the most comprehensive criminal justice reform package Mississippi had ever seen. He and leaders in the legislature recognized that Mississippians were paying a steep price as the prison population ballooned over the last decades, with no end in sight and no evidence Mississippi was better off. So they passed HB 585, a bill which overhauled the criminal justice system, reformed sentencing guidelines and supervision, and put in place evidence-based, data-driven best practices for reducing recidivism and lowering costs.
That bill has been a success. Within two years, Mississippi’s prison population dropped by 5 percent while crime rates continued to decline. The success rate for people coming out of prison and completing probation without re-offending increased by 10 percent. HB 585 focused on alternatives to hold nonviolent offenders accountable and from the first half of 2014 to the first half of 2017 the property crime rate in Jackson has fallen more than 27 percent. These reforms are also on track to save Mississippi at least $264 million over the next 10 years.
Now, Mississippi has a chance to build on this success. This year, the legislature is considering HB 387, which would alter policies that keep people coming through the revolving door of the justice system instead of setting them up for success when they reenter their communities. One provision of this bill, sponsored by State Rep. Andy Gipson, R- Braxton, reins in debtor’s prisons through the use of reasonable payment plans for civil infractions like traffic tickets. Why not allow people to keep working so they can pay overtime rather than languish in jail at taxpayer expense?
The bill also makes important improvements to parole policies. First, it prioritizes limited prison space for those who are dangerous by expanding parole eligibility for nonviolent offenders. While this will provide relief to taxpayers, it does not provide an entitlement to early release. It simply ensures the parole board has the discretion to identify nonviolent individuals who have paid their debt to society and are ready to be productive, law-abiding citizens. Additionally, this legislation makes the common-sense change of allowing parole officers to check on parolees at work, instead of the parolee risking losing their job to visit a parole office.
Conservative leaders from Newt Gingrich to Mike Huckabee have signed the Right on Crime Statement of Principles because the evidence shows we can enhance public safety and keep families together without being too tough on taxpayers. With HB 387, Mississippi continues down the path of states like Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and my home state of Texas in implementing policies that are based on conservative principles of limited government and personal responsibility. And like Mississippi, these states have reaped the benefits of better policy with lower prison populations and a better return on their public safety dollars. For example, since Texas began taking this approach in 2005, its crime rate is down more than 30 percent and its incarceration rate is down more than 20 percent.
These successes, principally in red states, have spurred a push at the federal level. My colleagues and I recently met with President Trump and his Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, along with conservative leaders from around the country, to discuss plans for federal reforms that will mirror the positive developments at the state level. When President Trump called for second chances in his State of the Union address, it gave members of Congress who can’t agree on anything a chance for a standing ovation in unison.
Mississippians should be proud that their state is a leader on the issue of criminal justice reform. Reforms don’t happen overnight; they succeed as the result of the commitment of state leadership to stay the course while constantly seeking new opportunities to improve public safety, lower taxpayer costs, and grow the state’s workforce. If Mississippi follows the path it is on, it will continue to be a leader for years to come.