Editorial Roundup: Mississippi

Columbus Dispatch. November 29, 2023.

Editorial: Numbers alone point to need for criminal justice reform

For the last 10 years, there has been an awful lot of talk about criminal justice reform in Mississippi, but very little action.

Alesha Judkins, FWD.us Mississippi director for criminal justice reform shared the stark realities of incarceration in the state during Tuesday’s Columbus Rotary Club luncheon. FWD.us is a national non-profit bipartisan advocacy group that pushes for criminal justice and immigration reform. The group was founded in 2013 by leaders in Silicon Valley, including Mark Zuckerberg.

The evidence of the inability of our legislature to take so little action on criminal justice reform is reflected in the state’s incarceration data. The current rate of 575 prisoners for each 100,000 people in the population not only leads the nation, but the world.

No matter your view on crime and punishment, that kind of incarceration rate should be troubling.

When you count those in prison and those with convictions who are no longer incarcerated, 1 in 4 Mississippians had a criminal conviction, and for 1 in 10, it’s a felony conviction.

It is worth noting that the first calls for criminal justice reform came not from the bleeding heart left but from state conservatives for whom the human toll represented by mass incarceration was secondary to the costs the state incurs to keep people in prison. The MDOC estimates it cost the state $59.24 per day per inmate. Quick math tells you that the annual cost of keeping someone in custody is $21,622. That’s more than twice the amount the state spends on educating a child.

Each year, bills intended to reduce the prison population are presented. Most die in committee or, on those rare occasions, when the House and Senate agree, they die in conference because the two sides are unable to agree on a final version. In 2020, two bills managed to make it to Gov. Tate Reeves’ desk, only to be vetoed.

Finally, in 2021, a bill to make prisoners convicted of crimes after 1995 eligible for the same parole eligibility as those convicted prior to that year was signed into law. (Prior to 1995, prisoners were eligible for parole after serving 10 years or 25% of their sentence, whichever was the lesser time.) In 1995, state after state — including Mississippi — adopted much harsher parole requirements: A prisoner had to serve 85% of the sentence to be parole eligible.

That law has made access to parole more fair, but it’s hardly stemmed the tide.

Today, there are 19,121 people in state custody, 2,000 more than in 2020. Clearly, small measures aren’t going to produce meaningful results.

Meaningful criminal justice reform will require more than just one piece of legislation. It will require a range of changes that not only address sentencing and parole, but programs that address recidivism. Mississippi’s three-year recidivism rate (people who are repeat offenders) is middle of the pack at 36.8%, but the five-year rate is 77%. It’s a revolving door and it will continue to be until our prisons are something more than warehouses.

Inmates need to serve their time in safe places where they have an opportunity to learn the skills they will need to return to society as productive citizens. They need support services to help them as they re-enter society. Too often, they leave prison penniless, having learned little that will help them succeed. They return to an unhealthy, hopeless environment that stacks the odds against them.

Implementing these measures will be costly, but compared to spending $21,000 to keep someone in prison for a year, whatever it costs is likely to be a good deal for the taxpayer. At the current rate, the state is expected to spend $413,434,262 to warehouse prisoners this year. There has to be a better use for that money, one that would reduce the prison population, reduce recidivism, strengthen our economy and, perhaps most important of all, save families.

___

Greenwood Commonwealth. November 30, 2023.

Editorial: College Board Pulls Another Surprise

Mississippi’s College Board is just full of surprises when it comes to hiring university presidents.

It pulled another one earlier this month when it announced that Marcus Thompson had been selected as the next president of Jackson State University.

Hopefully Thompson will work out better than the last three “permanent” hires at the state’s largest historically black university and only urban campus.

Over roughly a decade’s time, all three of them — Carolyn Meyers, William Bynum Jr. and Thomas Hudson — resigned under pressure. Meyers left due to the declining financial stability of the institution during her tenure. Bynum, who before going to Jackson had been the president of Mississippi Valley State University, got caught in an embarrassing prostitution sting. As for Hudson, the reason for his sudden departure has not been disclosed, but a recently filed lawsuit against the College Board claims he had years earlier sent inappropriate photos of himself to a JSU student.

The knock on Thompson’s elevation is twofold. It gives the appearance of yet another “inside job,” and he has little experience for the responsibility he is taking on.

Thompson has not worked on a college campus before. His 15 years in higher education have all been at the oversight level, serving as deputy commissioner for the state Institutions of Higher Learning, to which the university presidents report.

His surprise hiring has reminded many of the College Board’s decision in 2019 to send another IHL insider — Glenn Boyce — to be chancellor of the University of Mississippi.

In both cases, no one except those on the College Board and its selection committee had any idea that Thompson or Boyce were even in the running. Boyce had, in fact, been hired as a consultant to help find the next Ole Miss chancellor, and Thompson declined to tell Mississippi Today whether he had even applied for the job at Jackson State.

Since the College Board conducts these presidential searches as top-secret undertakings, there’s a great deal of distrust about the process. The public has no idea whether those selected were truly the best candidates on the table, or whether other factors — such as familiarity with the College Board — played into the decision.

Until the College Board restores some transparency to this process, it invites second-guessing. That second-guessing has, unfortunately, been borne out on too many occasions by the presidents’ performances in office — and sometimes outside of it.

END