One of the most disturbing statistics for our country is the sky-high incarceration rate. America has by far the highest incarceration rates in the world.
Mississippi and France have similar standards of living. But the incarceration rate in Mississippi is 10 times higher than France. Mississippi locks up 843 people out of 100,000. France locks up 99. Ireland and England lock up 80. Most African countries have incarceration rates around 50.
Basically, U.S. incarceration rates are 10 times higher than the rest of the world. How can this be?
Nearly all of the countries with relatively high incarceration rates share the experience of recent large-scale internal conflict. But the United States, which has enjoyed a long history of political stability and hasn’t had a civil war in over a century and a half, tops the list.
Six of the U.S. states with the lowest incarceration rates — Utah, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts — have higher incarceration rates than countries that have experienced major 20th century social traumas, including several former Soviet republics and South Africa. The two U.S. states that incarcerate the least are Vermont and Massachusetts, but if those states became independent nations, they would rank as the 11th and 12th greatest users of incarceration on the planet.
Last month I attended a panel discussion at the Old Capitol Inn in downtown Jackson on prison reform. It was hosted by the Greater Jackson Arts Council with additional support from the Mississippi Humanities Council.
The panelists were Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black; Carol Andersen, Mississippi Humanities Council Prison Education Director; Pelicia Hall, Commissioner, Mississippi Department of Corrections; Betty Lou Jones, Mississippi Parole Board; Judge Keith Starrett, Southern District of Mississippi. It was moderated by U.S. Appeals Court Judge James Graves.
During the discussion, I heard an intriguing answer to the question of sky-high American incarceration rates.
Author Piper Kerman said, “We have to ask ourselves why there is such a commitment to harsh punishment in this country. It has a profound connection to our history which includes chattel slavery and the forced removal of Native Americans. That’s where our tolerance and embrace of harsh punishment comes from. Harsh punishment was an essential tool to operate those systems. You couldn’t have chattel slavery without harsh punishment. You couldn’t remove Native Americans from their land without harsh punishment. We have to be honest about our history and we have to ask ourselves how we can possibly function in the modern world as a modern democracy without divesting ourselves of our commitment to that harsh punishment.”
No other nation relied on slavery the way our country once did. No other nation removed as many native people as our country did. No other nation has anything close to our incarceration. As much as the conservative in me wants to grasp for another answer, Piper’s explanation makes the most sense. As William Faulkner once said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
What was interesting about the panel of prison experts was that every one of them admitted our correctional system is fundamentally flawed. We imprison the mentally ill. Gangs are running the prisons. Poor people are by far the ones being locked up. Abusive conditions are rampant. The system is enormously expensive. Educational programs are severely lacking. Recidivism rates are high.
Nobody would ever accuse Judge Keith Starrett of McComb of being a flaming liberal. He has sentenced 10,000 criminals to prison. “The level of intellect is much higher than the level of eduction. There is so much potential that could be realized. Recidivism is such a huge problem. If a prisoner completes just one program in prison it reduces their recidivism rate by 50 percent. The prison programming in Mississippi is woefully inadequate. If we want to reduce recidivism we have got to have adequate education programs in prison from the time they get there until the time they leave. It’s a Department of Corrections not a Department of Punishment. They should come out better people than they go in. And often times that’s not happening because of the lack of funding, the lack of the quality of the programs, the culture. Lots of different reasons.”
Prison reform is happening in Mississippi. Our Republican government’s sweet spot is managing the budget and the Republican leadership was alarmed at the skyrocketing cost of incarceration. This led to a prison reform package four years ago, relaxing mandatory sentencing and increasing parole. After the reforms, Mississippi’s prison population declined from 22,237 to 17,900. But it has since creeped back up to 19,102. The state saved $40 million a year, but rather than go into prison education, the money went into the general fund.
This past legislative session saw more criminal justice reforms. A new law requires judges to waive fines and fees if the accused can’t afford to pay. Far too many people are thrown in jail because they can’t afford the fines. That reform will reduce that.
Just last week California became the first state to eliminate cash bail. Instead, a judge can only impose bail if there is a serious flight risk. In Jackson’s Hinds County jail, dozens of inmates are behind bars without any indictments because they had no money for bail. Debtors prisons are simply wrong.
The politics are aligning for more reform. On the left, you have well-funded groups like the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. On the right, you have groups like Americans for Prosperity and other free market groups that see the prison industry as a massively ineffective government bureaucracy.
I remember when Jackson crime exploded in the early ’90s with the crack epidemic. People were scared and a “lock them up” mentality was adopted. I was on that bandwagon. It worked and crime went down. Indeed, if you lock up enough people, crime will go down. It’s not like crimes are not being committed.
Law-abiding citizens must be protected from violent criminals, but the failed war on drugs has created a huge number of incarcerated addicts. They need treatment more than incarceration.
The cost of our prison system is huge. If we spent more money on rehabilitation, it would ultimately be money well spent. Any decrease in recidivism would create a huge return both in the cost of crime and the betterment of our society.
Our prisons are hellholes. A third of the prisoners are mentally ill. They need treatment, education and rehabilitation. Instead, they are caged like worthless animals. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and a sad legacy for our country.
As Judge Starrett says, we can do better. If Mississippi and the United States want to claim leadership of the civilized, developed world. we must break this historically rooted cycle of crime and incarceration.
By columnist Wyatt Emmerich