Other Opinions

Law will help end debtors’ prisons in Mississippi. Much more work needs to be done.

Aisha Carson is the advocacy coordinator for the ACLU of Mississippi, focusing on criminal justice reform and educational opportunities.
Aisha Carson is the advocacy coordinator for the ACLU of Mississippi, focusing on criminal justice reform and educational opportunities. Courtesy ACLU of Mississippi

Mississippi’s criminal justice system has historically been marred by inequities and unconstitutional practices. People unable to pay fines and fees associated with simple traffic violations in Mississippi can find themselves in jail for months at a time.

Qumotria Kennedy of Biloxi was thrown in jail for five nights following her arrest on a warrant for failure to pay traffic fines. She was not provided a court hearing on her ability to pay, informed of her right to request counsel, or appointed counsel. She was afraid for her daughter, who did not know where she was, and was ultimately fired from her part-time cleaning job because she missed work while jailed for fines. Debtors’ prison is a practice that is prohibited by the constitution yet responsible for derailing the lives of poor people across the state, like Kennedy. HB 387, now Mississippi law, is a step toward ending this practice.

This new law serves as a win for smart justice reform, creating efficiency and equity in local and state government by reducing incarceration costs and providing judges with discretion to establish payment plans for those who cannot afford to pay their fines. By alleviating debtors’ prison and enacting policies that support indigent defense, the state is taking a strong stand against the unconstitutional practice of jailing poor people while decreasing the burden of incarceration costs.

HB 387 will also help those who have served their time for misdemeanor and nonviolent crimes re-enter the workforce, a critical piece to reducing recidivism and decreasing the prison population. Re-entry and employability are among the most meaningful factors in supporting reintroduction into society for ex-offenders. According to the Bureau for Justice Statistics, 90 percent of people currently incarcerated will be released back into their community at some point. They should not be met with hurdles to employment and re-establishing their lives as productive citizens. HB 387 specifically allows parolees to have visits by their parole officers at their job or by utilizing technology, instead of missing work to attend these mandatory meetings. This small but impactful policy change will assist in alleviating barriers to obtaining and maintaining employment.

Mississippi has more than 19,000 people behind bars and ranks as the fourth highest prison population in the nation. Coupled with 2014’s HB 585, HB 387 strengthens the foundation for continued efforts to reform the criminal justice system in Mississippi, but we cannot stop here.

We must continue to advocate for smart justice policies that reduce the number of people entering prison in the first place and the amount of time they serve. We must tackle the racial disparities that currently exist. And, we must seek out alternatives to incarceration so that the countless collateral consequences attached to conviction do not make it harder for someone to support themselves and their families.

Mississippi has reaffirmed its commitment to continuing criminal justice reform, but much more remains to be done.

Aisha Carson is the advocacy coordinator for the ACLU of Mississippi, focusing on criminal justice reform and educational opportunities.

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