When we gather to worship, we join hands with our neighbors and members of our community to pray for others. We believe in a new hope and a new beginning for all those seeking to do God’s will, so that they, too, can live purposeful lives in God’s service.
With this in mind, it is important to take time to think about the nearly 19,000 people currently imprisoned in Mississippi, many of whom will re-enter society this year. Are we considering their ability to become positive members of our communities?
As members of our faith community in Mississippi, we should strive to do everything possible to support these men and women to lead productive, fulfilling lives. The costs of abandoning ex-offenders and allowing them to fall back into the corrections system have serious implications for everyone.
About a decade ago, our state’s elected leaders began to realize the consequences of our rapidly growing prison population — ballooning prison costs were threatening our state’s fiscal health. But in 2014, under the leadership of Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn, the Legislature passed HB585, a far-reaching set of criminal justice reforms.
In just three years, our state’s prison population has declined 10 percent. The state’s property crime rate has dropped 5 percent, and violent crime remains at historic lows. The reform has also enabled correctional facilities to focus on violent offenders, as evidenced by the increasing share of our state prisons that hold violent offenders. This alone illustrates how HB585 has worked to move nonviolent offenders into different rehabilitative settings, where they can still be held accountable while working toward a better life.
If we’re truly concerned about lowering recidivism, prison should be a last resort for low-level offenders who need to learn a better way in life. As Scott Larson of Reclaiming Youth International puts it: “No one working in corrections or any of its subsystems would say — or even believe — they are trying to keep people coming back to prison. And yet, when more than two out of three released prisoners return within three years, one must at least become curious as to why.”
Fortunately, our state lawmakers are asking why and are looking for productive policies to support good, law-abiding behavior. Thanks to the reforms in HB585, the population of individuals under supervision has declined 21 percent. Former inmates under supervision are also committing fewer crimes. In embracing evidence-based approaches to keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison and giving them an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves with the support of the community, we are all taking responsibility to help these individuals become successful.
The faith community in Mississippi has a critical opportunity to support those diverted from prison. Several organizations perform incredible work in service of this goal right here in our state. Crossroads Ministries works with former female inmates to support them as they piece together their lives. Paroled2Pride also provides an alternative for those re-entering society by providing professional training and the tools needed to secure employment. Each of these programs, and many more in Mississippi, are assisting and supporting individuals in getting back on track.
But there is much more we can do. The Governor’s Faith Advisory Council is deeply committed to commonsense criminal justice reforms that will help keep society safe and help former inmates turn their lives around. We also applaud the Mississippi Legislature for continuing to work on this issue. HB387, recently signed into law by Gov. Bryant, removes bureaucratic barriers that make it more difficult for former inmates to support themselves and their families. The law also prevents the automatic imprisonment of an individual who does not have the means to pay a fine or fee, requiring consideration of whether nonpayment is willful or not.
Partnerships between faith-based organizations, government and law enforcement will continue to be a key recipe for encouraging bipartisan reforms to our criminal justice system in Mississippi. We should continue to work together to help the thousands of individuals now preparing to re-enter our communities become productive members of society.
Rev. Paul Springer is senior pastor of Church Alive in Biloxi and serves on the Criminal Justice Reform Task Force of the Governor’s Faith-Based and Community Advisory Council.