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If Mississippi were a country, two years ago it would have had the second highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world. The state's conservative politicians spent years increasing sentences for offenders and decreasing parole, a tough-on-crime double-whammy that kept landing more and more people behind bars — until last year, when legislators finally came to their senses.
Mississippi lawmakers coalesced around a set of complex criminal justice system reforms in 2014, leading to a dramatic 15 percent reduction in the size of the state's prison population over the course of one year, according to numbers released recently by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The next closest state was Vermont, which saw a decline of less than 5 percent. Though Mississippi's incarceration rate remains the fifth highest nationwide, the recent progress is being hailed as a model for how liberal and conservatives can agree on prison reforms.
In 2013, the state's leadership — including the lieutenant governor, the senate president, and the speaker of the house — requested a grant and assistance from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a collaboration between the Department of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts, to help analyze criminal justice data and research possible reforms and proposals to take to the legislature.
In the ensuing 18 months, a task force of legislators and officials from the criminal justice system assembled by the state's governor worked with the JRI to evaluate what worked and what didn't. The process involved studying admission numbers, sentence lengths, recidivism rates, and data about prison programs, according to Zoë Towns, a manager at Pew's Public Safety Performance Project who oversaw much of the JRI work in Mississippi.
"There was a lot of negotiation up front, figuring out where the needs and the research met the political appetite," Towns said, noting that Mississippi's prison population was massive and still growing when the JRI begin its work. "Their shift was pretty massive. They took on everything, and had complicated and hard conversations for them. There was a fair amount of opposition, but the leadership stayed pretty strong."
The governor touted the $266 million in savings the new policies are projected to create over the next decade, a talking point that was echoed by many other state legislators. Others, however, said the cost reductions were merely a way for conservative politicians to drum up support for reforms that they truly believe are a better way forward for the state.
'Their shift was pretty massive. They took on everything, and had complicated and hard conversations for them.'
"Fiscal savings alone aren't going to change the hearts and minds of people immediately," Brian Elderbroom, a senior research associate at the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute said. "There's something else going on. There's more and more evidence that we're getting diminishing returns for our current incarceration rates and we can do more for less by reducing incarceration and reinvesting those savings into reducing recidivism and investing in ways to build communities rather than break them down."
Pastor CJ Rhodes from the group Clergy for Prison Reform said that it was a coalition of groups — including those interested in the faith, labor, and financial aspects of criminal justice — that came together to push for change by "raising moral and ethical question about what is the system like and why is it rigged against people."
The proposals that were eventually passed in a sweeping state bill in the spring of 2014 that changed sentencing recommendations for offenders, including shortening the sentences for many property and drug crimes.
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Research shows that nonviolent offenders who stay in their communities have lower recidivism rates than people who are jailed for the long term, so the state increased supervision of parolees in their communities, while also implementing new rules to increase the number of inmates freed on parole. Technical rehabilitation centers were established to house parolees who violate the terms of their release for up to 90 days as punishment for failed drug tests and other violations, an improvement over sending offenders back to prison for years.
Criminal justice reformers call these types of changes "low hanging fruit" — policies that most states can enact without too much political backlash. Elderbroom said Mississippi may still have other low-hanging options to further reduce its prison population, but future cuts will likely require changing the sentencing policies for violent offenders, which can be politically difficult.
"Mississippi is a really strong example that if you want to significantly reduce the prison population you're going to have to tackle a pretty wide range of the parts of the system," Elderbroom said.
Mississippi isn't the only southern state enacting criminal justice reforms. Alabama, Georgia, and Texas all have high incarceration rates compared to the national average, but each state has engaged with the JRI in recent years.
"What Mississippi has done is consistent with what we see happening throughout the south and nationally, which is a reconsideration of flawed policy, and they've had the courage to address it," said Will Harrell of the American Civil Liberties Union Southern Regional Policy Counsel.
Elderbroom cautioned that Mississippi's turnaround appears so impressive partly because from 2002 to 2012, the state increased the average sentence length by 28 percent, with nearly half of inmates locked up for nonviolent offenses. "The bottom line is that these states have adopted policies over the last few decades that send more people to prison and keep them there for longer and the reforms we're now seeing in some of these states are a step in the right direction, but a lot of room remains to reduce incarceration levels," he said.
"Looking at the BJS report, [Mississippi] stands out like a sore thumb," Elderbroom continued. "The reductions they achieved this year are on a scale that only California has seen in last few years. That's really exciting. I think we hopefully will see more and more states willing to do what they did. At the same time it's important to remember that Mississippi still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world [and] we can celebrate positive gains where they happen, but at the same time remember they still have high incarceration rates."
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said Mississippi passed new legislation aimed at preventing habitual offenders from being imprisoned for life. That measure was proposed but not approved by the state legislature.
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