There is increasing political movement toward introducing less punishment and more rehabilitation into the Mississippi criminal justice system.
In Deuteronomy 25:2 God says: “If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have him flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, but the judge must not impose more than 40 lashes. If the guilty party is flogged more than that, your fellow Israelite will be degraded in your eyes.”
We’ve come a long way from flogging, thank goodness, but there are two key concepts here: 1) The punishment must be proportionate to the crime, and 2) The punishment must not be excessive or degrading.
Back in the days of Moses, there was a reason for not making criminal punishment degrading: The Israelites had much work to do in populating and developing their nation in the promised land. God needed all hands on deck to make way for the Savior’s coming. Lesser crimes should be punished, but not to the extent that Israelites were degraded, alienated and outcast from the tribe. That was counterproductive to God’s plan.
As my grandfather editor Oliver Emmerich said many times, “Mississippi’s too poor and underdeveloped to leave anyone behind. Everyone should be treated with respect and dignity.”
There is a growing sense that we have created a permanent criminal underclass that is degraded, alienated and outcast from our society and economy. This is hurting our economy, undermining development and being disobedient to God.
As if that’s not enough, we only have to look at neighboring Alabama where the federal government is forcing Alabama to spend hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading their prisons and criminal justice system. If we don’t do it voluntarily, the feds will force us to.
No doubt there are evil people who need to be behind bars. These are calculating, competent sociopaths who know what they are doing is wrong, but don’t care because it suits their selfish needs.
But a huge number of people enmeshed in our criminal justice system are not evil. They are simply organizationally challenged or mentally ill. Criminalizing these people makes no sense.
Here’s what I mean: Take a person who struggles just to get through the day because they were born with fewer gifts than many of us. They may have ADHD. They may be battling poverty. They may live in a dysfunctional family situation. The list is endless.
Then they get a parking ticket in the mail. They intend to pay it but forget. Then they get another fine for not paying. Eventually they get a court summons. But they have no transportation to the court or get scared and intimidated by the process. Now a warrant goes out for their arrest. A year goes by, they are pulled over for speeding and hauled off to jail. They have no money for bail. They then become stuck in the criminal justice system with no way out.
Remember, these are people and families barely hanging on. Now a bread earner is in jail. The family has no income. Disaster strikes. More stress. More dysfunction. The repercussions magnify leading to more crime, more dysfunction, more imprisonment. And it all started with an unpaid parking ticket.
As a reporter, I have spent hours upon hours in courtrooms listening to judges deal with cases like these. It is real. Indeed, the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) admits that about a third of its prisoners suffer from some form of mental illness.
Many readers may be parents. As parents, you know that children vary widely in their social and coping skills. For some, it’s a piece of cake. Others struggle just to pay attention in class and do their assignments. That’s life. We’re not all the same. As loving parents, we do the best we can to encourage our less gifted children, show patience and help them learn and find a way. That’s the hallmark of a good parent.
That should also be the hallmark of a good society, the one God envisioned for his chosen people, a society that punishes justly but does not degrade or humiliate. This is what we need to work on in Mississippi.
A good start would be to end the noxious practice of fining poor people huge amounts to fund local governments. Over the last 20 years, state Republican leaders have cut taxes, which is politically popular. Unfortunately, cities and counties still need money to run their governments, so they just increased the fines for just about everything. Who pays these fines? Not the people who have their acts together. These people know how to be punctual and precise and avoid that trap.
The people who end up getting fined to death are the less organized and incompetent. They fall into the trap and eventually become like the indentured servants of yesterday. Their eventual jailing is the modern day equivalent of debtors’ prison.
Here’s a perfect example. A temporary house arrest would be a much better way of dealing with punishment in many cases, allowing the accused to continue working and be productive. But guess what? The accused must foot the $350 a month bill for the ankle bracelet. Very few Mississippians have access to that much extra cash.
We don’t make criminals pay for their room and board in jail. Why should we force poor people to pay for their own house arrest? It just puts them further into the hole, leading to their arrest, more incarceration and even more cost to the taxpayers as these people eventually become permanent wards of the state.
I have witnessed dozens of poor people getting fined tens of thousands of dollars in court by judges when it was clearly evident they could not possibly pay those fines. A 10 minute appearance in court usually comes with a $1,500 bill. It’s nuts.
A recent study by the Hope Institute put a number on it. In 2019, Mississippians owed $507 million in criminal justice system debt caused by court fines. That’s double from a decade earlier.
You could call this kicking a person when they are down. It’s degrading.
Locking people up and throwing away the key is the easy way out. But it’s not what God calls us to do. MDOC needs to live up to the “corrections” part of its name.
Change is coming. The new head of MDOC Burl Cain preaches rehabilitation and spiritual rejuvenation. Northside state representative Shanda Yates lists reform of our prison system as one of her top priorities. Americans for Prosperity, one of the most powerful right wing political action groups, is pushing state Republicans hard to reduce Mississippi’s incarceration rate, one of the highest in the world.
Republican Rep. Jansen Owen of Poplarville has introduced new legislation allowing easier expungement of non-violent crimes. Computerization of our society has made it almost impossible to get a fresh start. Minor crimes follow people forever, marring them for life and making it hard to get a job.
Decriminalization of drugs is a step in the right direction. We need to look at drug abuse as an illness, not a crime. Same with mental illness. And same with ADHD.
Wouldn’t it be great if we were all successful, easy-going, high-functioning individuals who glide through all the economic, personal and social obstacles thrown in our paths. Wouldn’t it be great to be free from sin.
But we’re not. In fact, most of us are not. So let’s start approaching criminal justice the way God told us to: Reasonable, not degrading, punishment with rehabilitation and reintegration as the fundamental goal.