Over the past decade or so, America has experienced a radical experiment with criminal justice reform.
The number of people arrested each year has fallen sharply. Public prosecutors now prosecute significantly fewer cases. Those that have been convicted have generally been given shorter sentences. As a consequence, America’s prison population is now 25 percent lower than it was in 2011.
It isn’t only those on the far left, motivated by an anti-police and anti-prison agenda, who have pushed for these changes. Plenty of well-meaning conservatives signed up for criminal justice reform, too. Everyone needs a second chance, right?
In 2018, it was conservatives in Washington DC that passed the First Step Act, which explicitly sought to reduce the prison population. Here in Mississippi in 2014, we overhauled sentencing laws in the belief that there are better ways of preventing crime than filling up our jails.
Criminal justice reform might have cut the number of people arrested, prosecuted and jailed, but these measures have not cut crime. Quite the contrary, in fact. These well-meaning reforms are responsible for the sharp spike in crime that we have seen in many parts of America, such as Jackson, Mississippi – a city that now has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country.
In 2013, the year before Mississippi overhauled sentencing laws, 28 people were murdered in Jackson per 100,000 people. By 2021, almost four times that many people, 101 per 100,000 people in our capital city were homicide victims.
When the Mississippi Center for Public Policy recently surveyed Jackson families about education opportunities, I was shocked to discover that their overwhelming concern was not school standards or even transport. It was safety. Decent families worrying about their kids getting shot are the price we pay for naïve criminal justice reforms.
Those that make public policy need to deal with the world as it is, not as they would wish it to be. To give us a reality check, we hosted a large public event with Rafael Mangual, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute, and our tough-on-crime state auditor, Shad White.
The author of the best-selling book, "Criminal (In)Justice," Rafael Mangual spelled out a few uncomfortable truths.
Firstly, the majority of crime in America – and Mississippi – tends to be concentrated in a small number of places. That said, it would be a mistake to think that if we were to exclude Hinds County from the stats, Mississippi would be safe. Even without the Jackson crime hotspot, crime throughout our state is far too high.
As Shad White added, we need statewide action and cannot dismiss crime as a distant problem.
A second truth that Mangual spelled out is that the victims of crime in America are disproportionately African American. Conversely, Mangual showed, when the police, prosecutors and the courts do decide to get tough on violent offenders, crime rates fall – and the beneficiaries are overwhelmingly African American.
A narrative has been advanced in recent years that America’s police and criminal justice system is systemically racist. Mangual showed that this narrative is simply wrong. Different outcomes in the criminal justice system do not reflect supposed biases of the criminal justice system but are reflective of offender behavior. Some have suggested that there is a link – or at least a correlation - with the breakdown in family structure, too.
As for the idea that we need to give people second chances, reflect on the fact that the average released state prisoner in the United States has approximately five prior convictions. Second chance? Sounds more like a fifth chance to me.
Who is not moved by the idea of redemption? The cold reality is that approximately 80 percent of released state prisoners will be rearrested at least once over a 10-year period after their release.
Yes, prison should aim to rehabilitate, but too often in the name of redemption, we are releasing criminals to reoffend. The primary purpose of prison must be to incarcerate bad people so that they cannot do bad things to good people.
Far too often when I read about a murder in our state, it emerges that the perpetrator has a previous history of run-ins with the law, and often convictions. There is nothing good or kind about misplaced criminal justice reform.