When I think about Chris Epps, the former longtime Mississippi corrections commissioner who grew up in Tchula and is now serving a prison term on a bribery conviction, two reflections stick with me.
The most obvious is that Epps was crooked for a long time, conning a lot of folks from both political parties, including three governors.
The other was that he was right when he observed that the key issue in corrections reform is for the people of this state to decide whom they’re mad at and whom they’re scared of.
Recent developments suggest that Mississippi struggles to disentangle the two. A penchant toward vengeance explains the state’s high incarceration rate, its tougher than normal sentencing laws, its deplorable prison conditions and the obstacles it erects for inmates to integrate back into society after they are released.
There has been, it bears noting, some progress toward shifting the emphasis in corrections from punishment to rehabilitation.
This past week, Gov. Tate Reeves reversed paths from a year ago and signed legislation to increase the number of inmates who are eligible for parole and shorten the time that others must wait before being considered for early release. Reeves did so after the Legislature removed murder from the list of offenses eligible for parole consideration.
Reeves’ corrections commissioner, Burl Cain, also has made moves in his first year on the job to put a greater emphasis on providing inmates with a base of marketable skills and a spiritual foundation, so as to help them stay out of trouble when they return to the free world.
In most other respects, though, Mississippi is letting its collective anger over crime get in the way of good public policy, all the while ignoring the teachings of most religions about forgiveness and redemption.
Case in point is the Legislature’s refusal to return voting rights to most felons.
Mississippi is one of the few states that does not automatically restore voting rights to felons after they have completed their sentence. It still requires them to go through the painstaking process of getting both chambers of the Legislature to agree to letting them vote again.
During the 2021 legislative session, according to the reporting of Mississippi Today and The Associated Press, bills were introduced to restore voting rights to 28 felons who had done their time. The House approved suffrage for 21 of them, but in only two cases did the Senate concur.
The two chambers apparently used different criteria to make their decisions. The House was mainly concerned with how long ago the offense had occurred, the Senate with whether it was a violent crime or had involved the embezzlement of public funds.
None of those criteria should really matter all that much. After offenders have completed their punishment, it is not only compassionate but also in society’s best interests to fully integrate them back into the fold. Restoring the right to vote is a tangible way to signify that the past offenders are being given a second chance. Erecting societal barriers to replace the steel ones that used to confine the former inmates is only going to foster bitterness and alienation, and thus increase the odds of a return to criminal behavior. Breaking the law is more enticing to people when they don’t feel they have much stake in obeying it.
Also this past week, in a setback for criminal justice reform, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Mississippi’s right to sentence juvenile killers to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The conservative majority overturned a 5-year-old precedent that said such severe punishment could only be imposed if a teenage defendant was found “permanently incorrigible.”
The previous court decision meant well — to hold youthful offenders to a different standard than adult criminals — but the standard it set was flawed in its arbitrariness. It created a rule that could rarely if ever be proven. Who can say with certainty that anyone, much less someone in his or her teens, is forever incapable of being rehabilitated?
The Supreme Court’s latest decision, though, did not tie Mississippi’s hands. The state retains the power to change the law. It should.
The proper time and place to decide whether those who kill in their youth constitute a permanent danger to society is not at their sentencing but years or decades later, at a parole hearing.
If their behavior in prison and psychological evaluations show that they might kill again, then they should stay put behind bars.
But if they have repented and reformed, it serves no good purpose to keep them locked up — and it’s expensive.
Mississippi should avoid laws, except in the most horrific cases, that remove discretion from the criminal justice process. Mandatory sentences and no-parole sentences close the doors to the possibility that people can change for the better.
- Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or email@example.com.