How Mississippi is Leading the US in Prison Reform
“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).”