Criminal Justice Reform Needs Improvements
*A version of this post was originally published as a guest column in the Hattiesburg-American on July 9, 2014.
Response to criminal justice reform (HB 585) taking effect July 1:
Before moving to Georgia in 2012 to attend law school, I had lived my entire life in Mississippi. I hope to return one day and advocate for criminal justice reform, and while I appreciate the sentencing reforms that just went into effect last week, it is a shallow approach that will not be a cure-all.
I am spending my summer with the Bronx Defenders in New York City. It is the nation’s flagship holistic defense office, and I’m inspired by their work every day.
By addressing the collateral consequences of being pulled into the criminal justice system we help our clients have a real chance of getting back on their feet.
By guiding the accused through the system and addressing the constellation of noncriminal legal issues that contributed to and resulted from their arrest or conviction, the likelihood of recidivism is decreased.
Of course, most criminal justice reform across the country is geared toward reducing expenses, and it’s not politically popular to pump money into the public defense system. Nowhere is this truer than Mississippi. However, there are other ways to reduce recidivism.
Georgia passed a law to remove some of these collateral consequences, rather than pay for legal assistance to navigate them. Mississippi has both chosen not to fund holistic defense and to maintain the collateral consequences that make the criminal justice system a whirlpool — once pulled in it is hard to escape. You could lose public housing and benefits, and SB 2689 affirmatively prohibits local governments from limiting background checks by employers.
Imagine being released from jail hungry yet disqualified for assistance, unemployed yet unhireable and unable to return to your family in public housing without getting everyone evicted.
Mississippi won’t save any money if someone serves less time for shoplifting or minor drug offenses, only to commit another minor offense within months of release. Criminal justice reform won’t work if shallow approaches strictly targeting one aspect of the problem are passed, and I hope state legislators will give more thoughtful consideration to comprehensive reforms that will benefit both defendants and taxpayers.
If criminal sanctions have a rehabilitative goal, it serves no one if the re-entry process for formerly incarcerated persons is devoid of opportunity for them to become productive and participating members of society.
A truly comprehensive approach would preserve human dignity and the state’s purse.