OTHER OPINION: What’s the right level of incarceration?

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, May 3, 2023

A recent email from the Mississippi Center for Public Policy asked this question: Does Mississippi send too many people to prison?

Given that Mississippi has one of the country’s highest ratios of inmates to population, the answer leans strongly to yes. But it’s always worth considering the other side of the argument.

The topic arises because in May the conservative policy center is hosting Rafael Mangual, the head of research for the Policing and Public Safety Initiative at the Manhattan Institute.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Mangual wrote a book last year, “Criminal (In)Justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who It Hurts Most.” The title makes it clear that he’s willing to consider other formulas to calculate how many people should be in prison.

The public policy center’s email said, “Instead of measuring how many criminals we send to jail relative to the size of our population, we ought to consider how many criminals we send to jail relative to the level of criminality.”

Mangual, the email added, would explain during his visit to Jackson “why sentencing leniency actually harms our state and its residents.”

It should be an interesting presentation. But Mangual will need to be awfully persuasive to make a case that Mississippi needs to be more aggressive about sending people to prison.

Think about it. If we have such a high prison population, that means Mississippi is doing a great job solving crimes, or there is more crime here than in other states, or other states are less serious about catching criminals — or that other states are trying alternatives to prison.

Another thought: It takes real talent to get sent to prison. You have to commit a serious crime, such as killing somebody or robbing someone at gunpoint; or you have to be found guilty of committing multiple felonies and refusing to take advantage of the second and third chances that the court system gave you.

Few would dispute that those who commit heinously violent crimes and those who are the most incorrigible and repeatedly prove themselves unwilling to abide by the law deserve to be in prison. The question is how hard to swing the hammer of justice at less harmful people whose nonviolent offenses rise to the felony level, often fueled by their drug addiction.

Mississippi learned long ago that a percentage of its felons can be rehabilitated through programs such as drug courts, where they have to stay clean for five years and hold down a job. It is difficult, if not impossible, to argue that, as a matter of public policy, this is a less preferable form of rehabilitation than prison. Drug court is much less expensive for taxpayers, and it gives participants incentives to quit breaking the law, hoping that the lessons stick.

This is just one example of prison alternatives that have had success. It would be interesting to compare how many prison inmates Mississippi has with the number of offenders in alternative programs. It also would be interesting to know how many people in alternative programs have stayed out of trouble afterward.

If anyone’s talking about defunding the police or putting no one in prison, that’s not a serious conversation. Some people need to be behind bars. The perpetual debate, of course, is just how many people that should be.

Originally published in the Greenwood Commonwealth.