Do we put too many people in prison?
By Douglas Carswell
Mississippi, it is often said, has an incarceration problem. Our state locks up too many people for too long, we are told.
Over the past two decades, Mississippi’s prison population has in fact fallen. In January 2014 the prison population of our state was 21,008. By January 2022, that figure had declined by almost a fifth to 16,931.
Those who argue Mississippi should incarcerate fewer people have been getting exactly what they asked for.
Now let’s take a look at what has happened to violent crime in our state over that time.
From 2016 to 2022, violent crime in our state increased by 741 percent, according to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety. We went from 538 violent crimes a year to 4,529. That is 3,991 more violent crimes and more victims.
Anti-prison advocates like to argue that locking people up in large numbers does not work. Crime, they point out, was high even when Mississippi locked people up in greater numbers than almost anywhere else in America. The trouble is that Mississippi after these anti-incarceration reforms is a vastly more violent place than Mississippi was without them.
In 2013, the year before Mississippi enacted legislation designed to reduce the rate of incarceration, 28 people out of every 100,000 Jackson residents were murdered. By 2021, that number had nearly quadrupled to 101 homicide victims per 100,000 residents in our capital city.
Of course, just because there has been a surge in violent crime at the same time that the prison population has been reduced, it does not automatically follow that the former has been caused by the latter.
The reality is, however, that across America the average state prisoner released has around five previous convictions. That means that we have a pretty good idea of who is committing the lion’s share of the extra crime; those that have already been convicted and released.
"But it is so expensive to lock up so many people!" the reformists insist.
It is expensive to maintain prisons, just as it is expensive to maintain our country’s borders. But there are some things that the government needs to do even if costly.
As Shad White, our State Auditor has shown, leniency is expensive, too. According to estimates by the State Auditor, each homicide in Mississippi costs taxpayers between $900,000 and $1.2 million. On top of that, of course, come all kinds of other costs paid for by the victims of the violent crime.
"But what about the human cost of incarcerating people?" the anti-prison advocates are quick to ask. "Locking people up harms families, and the children of inmates suffer."
Anyone who assumes that releasing violent criminals back into the bosom of their families will automatically be good news for those families might not have met many violent criminals.
Eight years ago, back when every policy-maker in Jackson seemed intent on drifting along with the anti-incarceration vibe, we were told that there were better ways to reduce crime than by filling the prisons.
Unfortunately, we have yet to find them. When you factor in selection bias, there is remarkably little evidence that most rehabilitation programs have the efficacy that those who run them want them to have.
Anti-prison advocates are currently campaigning to have Mississippi’s Parole Board release more parole-eligible prisoners from custody.
It is true that our Parole Board currently approves a lower percentage of parole applications now than it has done for years. But that is because there has been a massive surge in the number of people automatically entitled to apply for early release to the Parole Board.
Why the increase in parole applications? Because of legislation that the anti-prison advocacy groups helped pass which automatically entitles violent offenders to appeal to the Parole Board in the first place.
The Parole Board has recently been criticized for getting some parole decisions wrong. I can’t help wondering if the Board might have done a better job if they had not been flooded by new cases at the insistence of anti-prison activists.
The tragedy of this misguided anti-prison agenda is not only that it is driving a surge in crime. It has detracted from Mississippi implementing the type of prison reform that conservatives ought to support.
More needs to be done to make our prisons more humane. The prison system ought to do a far better job of differentiating between violent criminals and the non-violent. With so many young men graduating from the prison system each year, surely we could do a better job of ensuring they emerge with a better set of life skills?
These reforms are only going to be attainable if we have a prison system that achieves its primary purpose; locking up bad people in order to prevent them from doing bad things to good people.
There is now overwhelming evidence that we should abandon Mississippi’s flirtation with an anti-incarceration agenda – and it is not just a question of crime. If Mississippi wants to see the kind of economic growth that other states have experienced, we need to reduce our crime rates.
Douglas Carswell is the CEO & President of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.