Prison time can be counterproductive for many

Opinion

Last week, a legislative task force released a number of recommendations designed to be smarter about how Mississippi punishes adult offenders.

With an incarceration rate that is more than 70 percent higher than the national average, it’s clear that Mississippi has put too many adult offenders behind bars, with the attendant high costs for such a corrections strategy. The recommendations — coming from a panel of lawmakers as well as those who work in the criminal justice and corrections systems — show a consensus is building to more fully utilize alternatives to incarceration.

Assuming that the Legislature, when it convenes in January, adopts some of these recommendations, it will be following not only a nationwide trend but also its own recent example in dealing with juvenile crime.

On the same week that the criminal justice task force released its recommendations came a report complimenting Mississippi for reducing youth incarceration. The study, conducted by the national Juvenile Justice Network and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, found that youth confinements were down 63 percent from 2001 to 2011 in this state.

Mississippi’s progress in this regard has not always been voluntary. Reported abuses at the state’s “training schools” during the decade in question led to federal lawsuits and U.S. Justice Department intervention. As a result, the state has downsized or closed some facilities, been much more amenable to alternative forms of punishment and realized that locking up youths for minor offenses probably does more harm than good.

Whether adolescent or adult, the basic principle is the same. Cell space should be reserved for those who are violent or incorrigible. Throwing non-violent, first-time or small-time offenders behind bars with a harder-core criminal element is only training them to be worse offenders when they get out.

House arrest, drug courts and other alternatives that allow an offender to remain in the general population but under close supervision are much more likely to reform an offender than prison is.

Tim Kalich

Publisher Greenwood Commonwealth