Continuing Parole and Pursuing Other Commonsense Reforms Will Advance Public Safety, Strengthen Communities, and Boost Our Economy

/By  Alesha Judkins
"Seventy-two percent of Mississippi voters believe it is important to reduce the jail and prison population."

As our newly elected leaders in Mississippi prepare to take office, it is time to think about how campaign promises and issue platforms can become policies that will strengthen our communities, boost our economy, and make our state safer for everyone. 

Our state leaders must prioritize policy changes that will safely reduce incarceration, offer more substance abuse and mental health treatment, and expand opportunities for people with criminal convictions to rejoin the workforce. 

And as Mississippi leaders consider these policies, they should review recent polling making clear that voters strongly support continued progress to advance policies that will safely reduce incarceration, improve public safety, and boost the economy. Seventy-two percent of Mississippi voters believe it is important to reduce the jail and prison population. Eighty-one percent of voters support criminal justice reform, including 8 in 10 Republicans, Independents, and Democrats.

Without question, advancing more criminal justice policies should be a top priority so that we can help people rejoin the workforce and better take care of their families.”

Mississippi’s High Imprisonment Rate Hurts the State’s Economy

Last year, the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) received more than $400 million taxpayer dollars to run the prison system that has remained near 90% capacity through 2023. Currently, Mississippi has the highest imprisonment rate in the country, meaning we lock up more people per capita than any other state. According to a recent DOJ report, Mississippi’s prison population increased by more than 14%, the highest percentage of any state from 2021-2022. The state’s high imprisonment rate is not making us safer, because decades of research prove that incarceration is one of the most expensive and least effective public safety strategies. 

The state’s high prison population also undermines the state’s economy by removing people from the workforce and then making it difficult for those with criminal convictions to rejoin it, at a time when accessing a job provides critical stability. recently released a report, The Cost of Doing Business: Why Criminal Justice Reform is the Right Investment to Strengthen Mississippi’s Economy and Workforce, examining the impact of the state’s criminal justice system on our economy. 

From our analysis, the wide reach of the state’s criminal justice system is startling. An estimated 1 in 4 Mississippi adults, or more than 660,000 people, have a criminal conviction – 1 in 10 have a felony conviction, and 1 in 20 have spent time in prison. Without question, advancing more criminal justice policies should be a top priority so that we can help people rejoin the workforce and better take care of their families.  

Mississippi’s labor force participation rate is the lowest in the entire U.S.: only 54% of the state’s working-age population is employed or actively looking for work. The state recently reported an estimated 80,000 job openings. This means that for every 1 Mississippian actively looking for work, there are nearly 2 open jobs. 

We know that people with criminal convictions experience higher rates of unemployment and underemployment due to being overlooked as potentially qualified candidates for employment, a costly collateral consequence that weakens Mississippi’s workforce long into the future without improving public safety. Mississippi business leaders stated a “lack of qualified workers” was their top concern last year.

Each year, Mississippi’s economy – and particularly our small businesses – loses an estimated $2.7 billion in earnings due to criminal convictions. The state forfeits an estimated $95 million each year in sales tax revenue due to people spending less money because their criminal convictions negatively impact their employment opportunities and earning potential. The good news is that our elected leaders can help us change this trend and ensure a stronger workforce and economy by advancing commonsense policies that will bring more people safely home to their families, and help them reenter the workforce.

...90% of Mississippi voters support allowing people to earn their way home through the parole process.”

We Can Build on Recent Reforms to Advance Public Safety and Strengthen Communities

Thankfully, in recent years, Mississippi leaders have recognized the need to address the state’s dangerously high prison population. In 2014, leaders passed HB 585, which relied on data-driven policies to pass some changes to the state’s sentencing laws. This policy incentivizes people to participate in rehabilitative programming and follow facility rules and their supervision conditions and limits revocations for technical violations where people do not commit a new offense. Unfortunately, many of these provisions have not been fully implemented, blunting the impact of this policy by preventing people from coming home to their communities and reentering the workforce. 

And in 2021, state leaders overwhelmingly voted to expand parole to allow more individuals to demonstrate their rehabilitation to the parole board and be released. Fortunately, within about 6 months of expanding parole, Mississippi’s prison population reached its lowest point in 20 years. Unfortunately, that impact was short-lived, and in 2022, the population increased by about 3,000 people, in part because parole was not being fully implemented. With an increase in parole grant rates, the population steadied in 2023.

As we know, these legislative changes are necessary, but implementation is critical for the state to realize the benefits to families, communities, and even businesses, of safely reducing the prison population. By fully utilizing parole laws, removing unnecessary earned time restrictions, and ending revocations for technical parole violations, Mississippi can continue safely reducing the prison population while advancing public safety.   

Our leaders enacted changes like parole expansion because they are backed by years of research and have been shown to decrease recidivism and make communities safer. Over the last decade, we’ve seen 37 states – including Texas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee – reduce crime at the same time that they reduce incarceration, so we know it can be done. 

In the upcoming session, Mississippi leaders must take action to ensure that parole is continued, without a repealer, so that it can continue to be used as a tool to help safely reduce the prison population. It is an essential, data-backed mechanism that allows incarcerated people to demonstrate their rehabilitation and be considered for release on an individual basis by the Parole Board. As highlighted in recent polling, nearly 90% of Mississippi voters support allowing people to earn their way home through the parole process.  

Additionally, our leaders must address what’s driving our stubbornly high prison population. Based on a recent analysis, simple drug possession was the top offense on admission to prison in Mississippi accounting for 1 in every 6 people entering MDOC custody in the last six months of 2022. At the end of last year, there were 1500 people in prison for simple drug possession in Mississippi. In 2016, Oklahoma reclassified drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, a commonsense policy change that Mississippi could adopt to safely reduce the prison population and divert people to mental health and substance use treatment instead of prison.

As we look to the 2024 session, our leaders must advance data-driven policies that will safely reduce incarceration, ensure we keep parole eligibility, and continue to pursue other commonsense reforms that will improve public safety, boost our workforce, and help our state thrive.

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