Bipartisan consensus means issue at critical mass

Published 1:00 pm Saturday, November 9, 2013

You know a government policy issue is gaining traction when there is bipartisan agreement that something has to be done.

Such is the case with Mississippi’s high incarceration rate and its attendant cost to taxpayers.

A legislatively appointed task force has been meeting for months to discuss the problem and provide some recommendations to state lawmakers when they convene next year. For the most part, Democrats and Republicans agree that Mississippi is locking up too many offenders — second only to Louisiana’s incarceration rate.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Although this is somewhat of a generalization, Democrats question the wisdom of putting people behind bars whose crimes are largely due to their drug addiction, and they worry about the detrimental impact of decimating the adult male population in low-income communities, where the incarceration rates are highest. Republicans worry about the escalating cost, which either puts pressure on raising taxes or takes money from other pressing state needs, such as education, health care and infrastructure.

Without changes, the task force was told last week, Mississippi’s prison population over the next decade will grow by 9 percent and its corrections budget by 74 percent, from $361 million today to $627 million. …

None of these ideas are new to Mississippi. It has been a leader in using drug courts, for instance, as a way to deal with nonviolent drug offenders. It just hasn’t used them widely enough. Prison cells are expensive real estate. They should be reserved for those who commit violent crimes or are incorrigible crooks — inmates from whom society truly needs to be protected.

But for many nonviolent offenders, alternatives to incarceration are both a lot cheaper and more likely to be rehabilitative. Treatment for substance abuse, restitution and electronic monitoring, either alone or in combination, could produce better results than prison all the way around.

Whatever the reasons that have brought both Republican and Democratic officeholders to this conclusion, it’s a hopeful sign that they have appeared to arrive there.