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How Mississippi is Leading the US in Prison Reform

inside of a jail cell
(Photo: Pixabay)

“Many people now recognize that once you’ve done your time, once you’ve served your penalty, we ought to give you an opportunity to re-establish your life like everybody else as a matter of fairness.”

In April, Republican Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a former law enforcement officer, signed legislation to give ex-offenders a second chance at life after prison. The law will let those with criminal records acquire professional occupation licenses. Such licenses are needed in the fields of engineering, health care, construction, education, cosmetology, forestry and HVAC contractors.

The law, known as the Fresh Start Act, is just one of multiple penal system reforms passed by Mississippi in recent years, putting the state at the forefront of criminal justice reform.

Previous Mississippi Legislation Paves the Way for Criminal Justice System Reform

Legislation passed in 2014 and 2018 helped pave the way for the new legislation passed in April.

In 2018, Mississippi enacted legislation that built on state prison reform progress made in 2014. Gov. Bryant signed the bill into law after it was unanimously passed by both the House and the Senate. The law prevents people from being sentenced to prison simply because they are not able to pay fines and retroactively increases non-criminal offenders’ parole eligibility.

The legislation also redefined sentences for drug-related offenses, removes required minimum sentences and decreased the probability of previous offenders breaking parole because of technical violations. Dr. Todd Clear, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Criminal Justice, told U.S. News that while a small percentage of offenders end up back in jail because of an inability to find stable work, the majority of recidivism results from parole violations.

Clear told U.S. News some people are sent back to prison for showing up late to a meeting or spending time with family members they are banned from seeing. He believes by addressing the strict parole violations, recidivism rates will go down.

Clear also emphasized that the criminal justice reforms being seen are not a result of solely focusing on reducing recidivism statistics but are due to a change in the national dialogue on criminal justice. In the past, the focus was on punishment and “to be nasty to everybody who committed a crime,” Clear said.

“Many people now recognize that once you’ve done your time, once you’ve served your penalty, we ought to give you an opportunity to re-establish your life like everybody else as a matter of fairness,” Clear told U.S. News.

Recent Bills Are the State’s Latest Endeavor to Reform Its Criminal Justice System

This April’s Fresh Start Act prevents occupational licensing authorities from using a blanket ban on former offenders to exclude them from eligibility for occupational licensing.

Occupational licensing boards previously have been allowed to exclude an applicant based on a discretionary finding of lack of “good moral character,” which equates to a blanket ban on anyone with a minor offense.

Mississippi requires occupational licenses for 40 different professions and over one-third of the state’s residents have a criminal record. As the National Conference of State Legislatures wrote, “Research shows that gainful employment helps keep people with a criminal record from reentering the justice system.”

In addition, Gov. Bryant signed another law on the same day that increases Mississippi’s intervention courts – which provide a substitute for prison time – to encompass drug courts and mental health and veterans’ courts. This legislation also prevents people who are unable to pay legal fees from having their driver’s license suspended.

“There’s people that need to be in prison, and there’s people we’re just mad at,” Bryant stated at the National Governors Association meeting in Washington.

As Mississippi lawmakers have enacted new policies in recent years to put fewer people in prison and increase ex-offenders’ odds for success after release from jail, the recent bills are putting Mississippi at the front of criminal justice reform. And in Mississippi, reform is needed as the state’s incarceration rate is the third-highest in the nation.

First Step Act Takes Steps to Change the Federal Criminal Justice System

In December 2018, Congress approved bipartisan legislation endorsed by President Trump to bring change to the sentencing and treatment of prisoners, as well as their treatment after their release from prison. Known as the First Step Act, the House of Representative passed the bill by a vote of 358-36.

The Marshall Project, a non-profit that covers criminal justice reform, explains that the First Step Act reduces sentences for crack convictions before 2010, curbs mandatory minimum sentences, enforces existing rules like placing offenders closer to family and increases the number of days allowed off a sentence for good behavior.

Gov. Bryant advocated the bill, telling President Trump that “at the end of the day,” giving former prisoners a second chance “is just the right thing to do.” Bryant also reiterated to the president that many convicted prisoners have served in the U.S. military.

“They wore the cloth of our nation,” Bryant said. “And we’re not going to turn our backs on them because they made a mistake.”

Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler said during a House debate: “These changes recognize the fundamental unfairness of a system that imposes lengthy imprisonment that is not based on the facts and circumstances of each offender and each case.”

President Trump mentioned the First Step Act in his State of the Union speech in February: “This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community.

“The First Step Act gives nonviolent offenders the chance to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Now, states across the country are following our lead. America is a nation that believes in redemption.”

Although the nation still has a long way to go in terms of criminal justice reform, the state of Mississippi is leading the way.

As Dr. Clear told U.S. News, “Mississippi has every reason to be proud.” He added that “everybody’s bragging about (the work it’s doing).”

Leighanna Shirey

Leighanna graduated with a degree in English from Pensacola Christian College. After teaching high school English for five years, she decided to pursue her dream of writing and editing. When not working, she enjoys traveling with her husband, spending time with her dogs, and drinking way too much coffee.

1 Comment

  1. allen foster June 29, 2019

    That is my life in a nutshell:AFMD

    June 29, 2019

    To whom it may concern,

    I am writing this letter to you with the expectation of hope. I am not looking for a handout but a helping hand. Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Dr. Allen Foster and I am an American medical school graduate. I would respectfully request a few minutes of your time to provide a real 3D picture of me that goes beyond words on the page and speaks to the core of who I am.

    I am one of the fortunate few people who grew up and was able to pursue and realize a cherished childhood dream; mine was to become a physician. I do not come from a family of physicians nor did I grow up with a physician mentor. In fact, I come from a long line of teachers (at least on the female side) and hard laborers (male side); my mother was a single parent in the 60’s. And yet, somehow I made it to become a physician. I graduated from Howard University College of Medicine (Washington, DC) in 1983 and completed my Anesthesia residency in Cardiothoracic Anesthesiology at the Cleveland Clinic (Cleveland, Ohio) in 1992; this was following the completion of 2 years of a 3 year Pediatric residency program and the first two years of Anesthesia residency at The Howard University Hospital (Washington, DC). After completing my training at the Cleveland Clinic I went on to become an associate professor of anesthesiology at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania until January 1994. I left there to become one of the Staff Anesthesiologists, a member of the Pain Management Practice team and The Medical Director for Quality Improvement and Risk Management for Day Kimball Hospital (Putnam, Connecticut). During my time there I became Board Certified in Anesthesiology, Board Certified in Quality Improvement and Utilization Review Physicians; obtained my Risk Management certification through The New England Assembly, obtained Juran Quality Management certification and completed the non-resident components of the Tulane University Masters in Medical Management program (lacking the 9 week capstone component). Also while a member of the staff of the Day Kimball Hospital, I served on the Board of Directors, was very active in the community (Serving on the board of one of the local churches as well as a member of the executive committee of that church) and was deeply involved in fundraising for the hospital. I left the Day Kimball Hospital in 1998 and became a Regional Medical Director for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Tennessee (Chattanooga, TN). During this time I continued my history of volunteerism and again was very active in the church. (Also serving on the Board of Directors and the executive committee.) While at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Tennessee I was recruited to become the Department Chair of Anesthesia at Lakeway Regional Hospital (Morristown, TN) a position I decided to take. While at Lakeway Regional Hospital I served three terms as the elected chief of staff, acted as defacto Chief Medical Officer and served as a voting member of the Board of Directors for the hospital. Also while there, I was active in mentoring new physicians and participating in community outreach helping to improve the lives of the community as a whole; this outreach included cooking classes, health classes and serving on several community boards. I left Lakeway regional Hospital in 2006 to become full-time at my own practice as chief executive officer and medical director. It was during this time I met and married my beautiful wife Sonia.

    (In my career I have proven to be an excellent diagnostician, clinician and communicator. As a volunteer I have served on several boards and volunteered for innumerable projects and task. I grew up volunteering and remain committed to helping my fellow man when and where it is needed. Currently, I am an active volunteer of the online community Catchafire – matching skills to need. My current project for a Non-profit which is realizing them a significant saving and from which their goal is to harvest a much greater return, is mentoring the executive staff on public speaking.)

    Unfortunately, it was also during this time that I became the target of a federal investigation. At the time of the incident related to the investigation, I was the Chief Executive Officer, founder and establishing Medical Director of a multidisciplinary pain center. This center was originally located in Morristown, Tennessee and relocated to Knoxville, Tennessee. As established by me the groups approach to pain management utilized a holistic methodology which consisted of invasive procedures (when appropriate targets had been identified), medication management (using opioids and others as identified to be appropriate and monitored as necessary), adjuncts – to include Physical Therapy, Medical Devices (Various braves, Tens Units, etc.), Over the Counter medications and Psychiatric evaluations with interventions as deemed necessary. As a referral center, the patients being treated at our pain center had prior primary care pain intervention before being referred to our practice. When the patient was accepted into the pain management center and opioids were prescribed these were given to improve their social, occupational, psychological, interpersonal, and physical disabilities. These medications were given with the patients’ consent and risk/benefits were outlined and understood. The patients prescribed these medications were fully aware that the elimination of pain was an unrealistic expectation and their individual listed goals were aimed at increasing ADL’s, decreasing their chronic pain score and decreasing their usual pain score. As part of management, controlled medication agreements and consents were signed by all patients so prescribed, periodic reviews of effectiveness of long term medications were made using a numeric scale; diversion, abuse, data base queries, urine drug screens, aberrant behavior, and addictive behaviors were all monitored and addressed as necessary with each patient.

    As established in the information provided by the United States District Attorney, each patient in the encounters questioned was an established, stable patient. Each patient was triaged with vital signs and history taken. Each patients’ charts was reviewed by the physician of record or one of the groups’ advanced practice providers’, before the episode of care was completed and final care was rendered. The quality pathway in question was established as a way to improve patient satisfaction, improve patient compliance and enhance practice efficiency. This system was developed and utilized for established patients only and at no time was this utilized for new or non-stable established patients. This fact was also noted and established by the United States Attorney. (I have attached a detailed description of the Quality Management pathway for review.)

    There were no issues in my practice with the medical management of patients this was verified by two distinguished reviewers who reviewed my charts during this timeframe, Richard L. Rauck, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and Carol A Warfield, MD, Distinguished Lowenstein Professor of Anesthesia, Harvard Medical School, Arnold Pain Management Center in the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, MA. Dr. Warfield is on record as saying that she thought this was unjustifiable action and a “witch hunt” (I have attached a brief summary of their credentials for your review.) Unfortunately I have come to believe that this investigation was brought on by the fact that I was a successful black physician in a predominantly white town. In Knoxville at that time I do not recall seeing another black physician.

    After a four year investigation I was charged with Medicare fraud (an up-coding violation), stating that my office although seeing every patient as stated and maintaining quality, should have billed at a lower code. The rationale for our billing is attached with both a statement from the certified biller and a description of the patient process (see previous reference for Quality Management pathway). The total amount for this fraud charge was $149,000. Since that time I have been made aware of and seen case after case were physicians have overcharged millions of dollars and not been the subject of a criminal investigation and only received a slap on the wrist for monetary pay back. There was a recent anesthesia group in Texas with a $3 million overcharge and no criminal investigation only payback. Again, I can only conclude as per my attorneys (all three were Caucasian) that I was a target because I was a black physician in a predominately white environment. To enhance the charges I was also charged with failure to file income taxes for the years 2005, 2006, and 2007. However, the government did acknowledge that all prior years had been filed and that there were no outstanding taxes due from these filings. The government also acknowledged that these taxes were at a certified accountant’s office to be done. The government however would not recognize that usually these matters, because of the prior compliance history, were rightfully handled in a civil court, but because of the ongoing criminal federal investigation they added it to the Federal criminal matter in order to enhance the monetary fines and thereby increase the level of severity and sentencing time guidelines. (Because this was the case, on the advice of my attorney the accountant turned over all paperwork to the legal office and thus stopped all work on these tax filings. This meant that during the investigation another year passed and the taxes were not filed on the advice of the attorney handling the case.) So that with tax penalties and interest all total the “criminal” amount came to a little over $770,000. For my family and my mental well-being after four years of investigation I did take a plea agreement. This plea agreement included fines, incarceration, and the voluntary surrender of my medical license with the ability to reapply for reinstatement.

    It has been my privilege and honor to have been actively engaged in the practice of medicine for 24 years. I have not and do not take the practice medicine lightly. Maya Angelou…..People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. With my patients and colleagues I lived that every day. This is clearly evidenced by the many hundreds of letters of outpouring sent to the court on my behalf. I have supplied some of them for your review as well.

    After completing my incarceration time in July 2012 Immediately I began to seek full time gainful employment as well as the restoration of my medical license. However, because of the conviction for Medicare fraud I had to also complete a five year exclusion term from the Medicare/Medicaid program. This effectively blocked me from working for any hospital or healthcare facility receiving federal funding. Because of my executive experience in hospital and health plans as well as my experience as an entrepreneur I thought the process of finding somewhere to exercise my skills and talents would not be so difficult. This was proven to be very very wrong. In fact, since that time, because of the federal conviction and because I am black, I have been unable to obtain gainful professional employment. As a matter of fact I have worked for JCPenney, Home Depot, TNG Company and I am currently working for the company Advantage Solutions as a $15 hour merchandiser. I believe in honesty, integrity and directness and therefore have not failed to list my conviction when applying for employment opportunities. (The explanation letter I attach is also attached for your review.)

    As far as my medical licensure is concerned I have maintained obtaining continuing medical education credits and have well over 500 credit hours. I have also been to online seminars and classes trying to maintain to the best of my abilities my clinical skills. To assist with this I also spent six weeks at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City in their Anesthesia department taking an active part in the anesthesia simulator lab, anesthesia grand rounds and daily direct anesthesia care observation in the OR (Dr. Adam Levine, Director).
    I have applied for several licenses in the past years and have been turned down because of “moral issues “not because of my education or continuing education or training. The most recent applications went to California and New York.

    While at the Mount Sinai hospital in New York I was offered a retraining position/fellowship contingent upon the obtaining of medical licensure. The program director, Dr. Adam Levine, submitted a statement on my behalf to the New York Board of medicine on this matter. The New York board of medicine did not have any questions about my continuing medical education history or recent training, but because of the federal conviction I had to go before a moral review board. This moral review board questioned my age, questioned my executive background and generally belittled my accomplishments, character witnesses and volunteerism. The appointed panel failed to see me because they were biased by the lens through which they looked. I am neither an overly proud man nor an arrogant one but I am an African-American male who grew up in the deep south of the 60’s and 70’s and choose a profession not noted for its diversity. I have been a token in any number of positions I have held, and through all of them I carried myself with dignity and self-respect, able to hold my head up and keep “looking them in the eye”, a trait the panel could not understand or grasp. Every day I wake up for the past 7 years I am reminded of the error I committed and the mistake I made, and every day I have to maintain my own personal dignity and self-respect. Without this, what then? Without the personal expression of self-respect and personal dignity where would I be? How could I move forward in life as an African-American male without self-respect and reliance? The panel expected “sack cloth and ashes” this was/is an unrealistic, deeply insulting and heavily biased expectation. Every day I awaken and report to my non-professional job I report with my dignity and self-respect fully intact, without it where would I then be: Just another African-American male invisible and broken. I should not be further punished because I have already paid a steep price as proscribed by the courts. I should not be further punished because I have a sense of personal pride and dignity. I should not be subject to further punishment because of the color of my skin. Sadly that is the case throughout society. It is a proven legal fact that race plays heavily on remorse and perceived acceptance of quilt: (https://doi.org/10.1080/07418829900094071: and that skin color plays a significant role in punishment/sentencing disparity (https://doi.org/10.1111/jels.12077; https://doi.org/10.1111/soc4.12046) Sadly, this is the case here because I was not “perceived” to be remorseful enough by this biased panel although I verbally expressed again and again, as evidenced by the transcript from this heating, my admission and acceptance of quilt.

    I have submitted information backing this to the New York Human Rights and Civil Rights bureaus and as of this writing have not heard from them. Bearing in mind that the Mount Sinai hospital was certainly willing to sponsor my retraining as an anesthesiologist. There is an abundance of case studies supporting where minorities go before moral review boards and the associated reports are significantly less well than Caucasian counterparts. I have submitted to you above only three (of many) significant legal briefs on this, demonstrating where remorse in the minority group was significantly downplayed each and every time before a moral review board.

    And this is where I am today and why I am seeking a helping hand for a pardon or a name to call for assistance, something to help me and my family. I have the education, I have the training, I have the background, I have the moral compass but I am unable to move forward in life because of discriminatory practices. Jail reformation is a positive step but what happens to black professionals afterwards is even worse than confinement. (It should be noted that prior to the conviction I did contact the NAACP, Operation Push, and the Southern Poverty Law center to no avail being told that I was too small a “fish” for their assistance.) With New York, I had a Hospital (Mount Sinai) and a physician director (Dr. Adam Levine) willing and ready to sponsor me but because of the discriminatory practices at the Board I was again unable to move forward.

    At this time I am struggling and need help, if you could kindly lend a hand, recommend a mentored course of action, intervene, anything please, would be greatly appreciated. And thank you again for taking the time to read and review this letter and with hopes and prayers for intervention.


    Allen Foster

    P.S. As a more recent example of this is the following incident which occurred in June of this year: After a great Skype video interview I was invited to the organization for an onsite interview. The position is/was one I was well qualified for. After the onsite I was offered the job and signed a contract accepting the opportunity. The organization as part of the onboarding process obtained a background check. Upon learning I had a felony they immediately, without asking for an explanation decided to term the contract despite my qualifications.


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