This year, our lawmakers faced the opportunity to vote for or against bills that included almost 20 new crimes and harsher penalties for which Mississippians could be charged. Amongst the proposed bills included:
- Up to three years in prison for failing to file the proper paperwork when buying or selling scrap metal;
- Up to five years in prison for misinterpreting the intentions behind a crime; and
- Up to four months in prison for obstructing traffic without a permit.
In many cases, these bills were politically inspired by recent events in the news—they had no relation to policy research or the experiences of everyday Mississippians.
Luckily, all but two of these bills failed (scroll below for more details).
New crimes and harsher penalties are proposed every year, wasting lawmakers’ time and taxpayer dollars without any contribution to public safety.
The Mississippi Legislature has made some strides with bipartisan support to improve the state’s criminal justice system. For example, lawmakers have taken action to advance parole reform over the past several years, making new categories of offenses eligible for parole. Additionally, the creation of the Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force addresses improving public safety and ensuring efficient spending of taxpayer dollars. Yet, new crimes and harsher penalties pull us ten steps back with every hard-fought step forward.
Studies on the effects of harsher punishments through habitual offender laws, for example, show no evidence that raising the stakes of unlawful conduct has any impact on crime reduction. In fact, longer sentences correlate with higher rates of recidivism—the opposite outcome of what legislators concerned with mass incarceration want to achieve. The creation of more crimes and harsher punishments also carries enormous financial burdens for the American taxpayer. One estimate finds the U.S. spends $1 trillion per year to implement these laws, and that’s before the nearly $20,000 per year it costs to incarcerate a single individual in Mississippi.
Mississippi does not need these laws. Mississippi does not need more people in prisons and jails, taking money out of the economy and feeding it into the mass incarceration machine. Our law enforcement officers don’t need more laws to enforce, our prosecutors don’t need more people to prosecute, and our communities don’t need more risk of being torn apart.
Mississippi needs data-driven policies that are smart on crime. The vast majority of people who go to prison have a mental illness, substance use disorder, or traumatic brain injury—we need laws that connect Mississippians with the mental health care necessary to keep our communities safe. We need public money to serve the public good. And while we work in coalition to make these necessary reforms a reality, we ask only that lawmakers not make things worse.
Next legislative session, we hope to see no new crimes and no harsher penalties.