By The Greenwood Commonwealth, Greenwood Miss.
GREENWOOD, Miss. —
By The Greenwood Commonwealth:
Visitors from abroad have marveled at the number of church buildings not only in every small town but dotting the rural landscape in Mississippi.
Yet, according to numbers Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps presented to lawmakers recently, Mississippi leads the nation in locking people up in prisons at a rate of 686 inmates per 100,000 residents, based on 2010 figures. The national average is 439. Mississippi ranks second, behind only Louisiana, in lockups. One or two? Bad either way.
Epps also told the legislative budget committee that Mississippi is a leader in average prison sentences, at 6.05 years compared to a national average of 5.42 years.
Ironically, despite a tee-totaling theology preached by Baptists and several other denominations, 78 percent of the inmates used alcohol or drugs and many committed crimes while under the influence or to feed a habit. Like we said, it’s a dichotomy producing contradictory outcomes — a lot of churches, a lot of convicts.
Maybe the churches aren’t doing the job they should in reaching people outside their buildings, but lawmakers can’t do anything about that.
What they can do — and what many, including Epps have been suggesting — is to get away from a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality.
Epps regularly reminds listeners whenever he is called to speak to civic clubs or other organizations that the state must set priorities to reduce the financial and societal costs of imprisonment. “You will have to decide who you are mad with and who you are afraid of,” he likes to say, suggesting lengthy incarceration should be reserved for violent crimes.
Some progress is being made with alternatives to incarceration, such as drug courts and house arrest — where first-time offenders are given a chance to rehabilitate without going to prison. These programs should be expanded.
Epps also suggests there should be more uniformity in sentencing, and he’s probably right.
Reading crime reports from across the state, including locally, leaves no doubt that there are plenty of criminals who need to be locked up. There are no easy solutions.
But it seems we could do better. For more reasons than one — including the tremendous cost of operating prisons — Mississippi must find practical ways to lower its prison population.