Public opinion changing the face of incarceration

By WYATT EMMERICH,

CRIMINAL JUSTICE is probably the most fundamental responsibility of government. It’s no easy task.

There is a trend, both nationwide and statewide, to reduce incarceration levels, which are the highest, by far, in the world.

National incarceration rates are about seven times higher than the world average. Mississippi’s incarceration rate is about 10 times higher than the world average. It’s about the highest in the world.

I remember back in the early ’90s when the crack epidemic was raging, I was leading the charge on increased incarceration. It seemed to work. Crime came down.

But was the cure worse than the disease? Our state and nation has created a permanent underclass of prisoners with an enormously expensive bureaucracy. We spend so much on incarceration that there is precious little for rehabilitation.

Our vast prison system has become a base for gangs which run the lucrative contraband industry. This gives gangs the power to exercise control both in prison and the free world.

This has not escaped the attention of our U.S. Congress, which took a big step toward repealing some lock-em-up laws such as mandatory sentencing and truth in sentencing. It’s a big change.

The new law, signed by President Trump, would take modest steps to reform the criminal justice system and ease very punitive prison sentences at the federal level. It would affect only the federal system — which, with about 181,000 imprisoned people, holds a small but significant fraction of the U.S. jail and prison population of 2.1 million. Surprisingly, Mississippi is one of a handful of states on the leading edge of criminal justice reform. Republican leaders have recently enacted a variety of reforms to reinstate parole and ban the incarceration of people for being too poor to pay fines.

Just last month Gov. Phil Bryant called for  prison reforms, having just attended a two-day meeting in Jackson of state leaders from across the political spectrum. When the Americans For Prosperity and the ACLU are united on an issue, you can bet it has wheels.

National polls show 90 percent believe the criminal justice system is broken and 70 percent favor reducing incarceration rates. A recent Mississippi poll showed similar results, including that 61 percent of Mississippi voters are against felonies for drug possession.

This is especially true for drug addicts, which make up about 20 percent of the prison population. Half the prisoners are mentally ill.

Perhaps these people need treatment, rather than prison. Drug courts, house arrest, therapy, regional mental health centers, Whitfield could be better alternatives.

We’ve seen this movie before: Recall Prohibition, which led to criminal gangs funded by bootlegging. Now we have a huge layer of criminal activity focused on the lucrative drug business. The harsher the drug laws, the higher the profits and the more gangs will kill to control the drug markets. It’s a threat to our society. Consider the unspeakable drug violence raging in Mexico. Do we want that here?

The war on drugs has failed. Harsher penalties have not decreased drug use. Instead, harsh penalties reduce supply which raises prices, making the drug trade even more lucrative. Gangs make even more money hooking people on drugs. Illegality makes it easier to lace drugs with cheaper, deadly chemicals causing more deaths.

Decriminalization is on the horizon. It’s already happening with marijuana.

Northside attorney Bill Featherston called me the other day with a case study of how some of our drug laws are causing more harm than good.

One of his clients was just sentenced in Madison County to four years in jail, no parole, for having a bottle of Lortabs, a type of prescription opioid.

His client, Janara Whiteside, is a truck driver from Vicksburg. She was stopped for a traffic violation and her car was searched.

Whiteside had a Workers Comp injury but her health insurance ran out so she got a friend to get her the Lortabs.

She was convicted for being a drug dealer even though there was no evidence at all that she was selling drugs. That’s because state law declares anyone possessing more than 40 pills of an illegal drug is automatically assumed to be a drug dealer. A normal prescription of Lortabs is 60 pills.

 

This is the same thing that happened to Patrick Beadle, a Jamaican-born musician convicted of drug trafficking in Madison County for marijuana he obtained legally in Oregon for his personal use. He received an eight-year prison sentence without parole. Ironically, Beadle was stopped and arrested by the same Madison officer as Whiteside.

Beadle, a Rastafarian, had two pounds of pot so, based on state law, he was presumed to be a dealer even though there was zero evidence that he was dealing drugs. Rastafarians smoke a lot of pot.

These are the types of laws that need reconsideration. There should be some proof required that the person is actually a drug dealer, especially when the amounts are set relatively low.

The state legislature cannot know the particulars of every case. Judges and prosecutors need the ability to do their jobs without being micromanaged by a legislative body that is not privy to the specific facts of a case. Prosecutors and judges say their hands are tied by strict state laws.

Part of the problem is that juries, by law, have no idea that their guilty decision can send a non-violent person to jail for decades for simple drug possession.

Three strikes you’re out, mandatory sentences, abolishment of parole, assumption of dealing based on possession quantities, these are all the types of inflexible laws that have caused our incarceration rates to skyrocket.

Another example: Gov. Cliff Finch decriminalized marijuana years ago, but you can still be sent to jail for a year for possession of a pipe or papers. And no matter what, you lose your license for six months, which is incredibly disruptive in our automobile society.

Both Beadle and Whiteside had not harmed anyone. Now their incarceration will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Their lives are effectively ruined and their family members traumatized.

The judges, the prosecutors, the legislators all fear being accused of being soft on drugs. They want to be reelected. But polls show half of us have a close friend or family member who has been arrested for drugs. Public opinion is changing.

Featherston told me, “It’s ironic that the state of Mississippi is suing the opioid manufacturers for causing people to get addicted to their products, yet they charge someone who is addicted with trafficking, even though there was no evidence she was trafficking in the drugs.”

“Judge Steve Ratliffe up in Madison touts his drug court program about how instead of sending people to jail they try to send them to rehab and try to get them straightened out but instead he sentenced this person to four years in jail.”

“We’re filling up the jails with people who are not a threat to society. They’re only a threat to themselves. They should be in rehab instead of going to prison for four years at $40,000 a year of taxpayer money. She was a truck driver paying taxes, now she has to spend four years in jail. She could have gone to drug court and kept on working and earning a living and paying taxes. Now she’s a burden to the taxpayers.”

Lock ‘em up and throw away the key sounds great until it hits home. Bill Waller, chief justice of our state supreme court, has been instrumental in the establishment of diversionary drug courts. In a recent talk, Waller told my Rotary Club, “There’s not a person in this room who hasn’t been directly affected by addiction through a close friend or family member.”

Is there a better way? Every developed country except ours seems to have figured this one out. Check out what Portugal has done. Rehabilitation over incarceration. Maybe it’s time to try something different.