Advocates take Catholic approach to criminal justice reform

By Andre de Gruy
JACKSON – In 2000, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a statement calling for changes in how this country, deals with the problems of crime and criminal justice. Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, USCCB, Nov. 15, 2000. The Bishops began looking at these problems with the recognition that Catholics believe “the dignity of the human person applies to both victim and offender.”
In preparing the statement, the Bishops consulted Catholics involved in every aspect of the criminal justice system: prison chaplains, police officers, prosecutors, judges, correctional officers, crime victims, offenders and the families of both. Their statement examines Church teaching on crime and punishment, and in light of Catholic Social Teaching makes policy suggestions on this subject. The Bishops end with a call to action by Catholics and other people of good will to work to make the criminal justice system “less retributive and more restorative.”
Beginning in 2013 civil leaders began in earnest to address the need for criminal justice reform in Mississippi. In 2014, after considerable study, our legislature passed HB 585 which significantly altered the state’s approach to criminal justice. Although Mississippi saw decreases in both crime and incarceration after passage of HB 585, the state’s prison population is on the rise again. There is a strong consensus that it is time for more reforms.
In a poll conducted last August more than two-thirds of Mississippi voters said they believed the criminal justice system needed “significant improvements.” Remarkably the support was not just strong but bipartisan. Following the poll the state Reentry Council working with the Governor and Legislative Leaders convened a Criminal Justice Summit in December. In light of this convergence of Church teaching and civil authority initiative, Catholic Charities has again recommended the focus of Catholic Day at the Capitol be Criminal Justice Reform.
Catholic Day 2019 is scheduled for February 27. By that point in the session, a little over halfway, most of the more than 2,500 general bills filed will have died in committee but with the broad support shown so far advocates expect many of the ideas discussed below will be under consideration and in need of Catholic voices of support. .
One of the reasons for the broad support is the recognition that Mississippi’s incarceration crisis removes thousands of people from the economy and costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year, preventing the state from investing in other critical priorities such as education and drug and mental health treatment. The state’s high incarceration rate is hurting Mississippi’s economy, communities, and families.
In accord with the Bishops’ statement, some of the recommendations would change how we wage the “war on drugs.” The ideas include updating drug court statutes to allow different types of “problem-solving” or “intervention” courts such as mental health courts as well as ensuring people have access to the programs. There is also an initiative to reclassify a person’s first two simple possession charges to misdemeanor rather than felony offenses. These policy recommendations would both reduce the number of people going into prison for drug crimes and the number of people addicted to drugs.
The focus will not just be on the front end trying to keep people from prison or reducing their stay but rather in helping people reenter their communities prepared to succeed as productive members of society. Giving “second chances” isn’t just the right thing to do but keeping communities safe often means providing second chances and holding people accountable in their communities rather than harsher punishments. The “Scarlet F” of a felony follows tens of thousands of Mississippians for their lifetime, preventing many from fully participating in the economy, their families, and their communities.
There will be efforts to change laws to ensure that prior convictions more than 10 years old do not lead to harsher punishments down the road and that expungement, wiping a conviction off a person’s record, is available to most nonviolent offenders.
There are many other barriers to the workforce. Thousands of people are held in jails awaiting trial for misdemeanors each year, which causes job loss and prevents parents from providing for their families. At the same time, people who are serving their sentence in the community on probation or parole face barriers to employment that make it difficult to reintegrate into their families and communities. States across the south have proven it’s possible to balance accountability with employability to ensure that thousands of people are not needlessly locked out of the economy.
Some of the specific proposals designed to get people back to work include employer tax credits for hiring formerly incarcerated citizens, allowing people charged with misdemeanors to await trial at home rather than in jail and not barring people from securing an occupational license because of a conviction of a crime unrelated to the field. For example, many people become skilled barbers in our correctional system yet can’t get a license upon their release.
One of the most pressing reform issues – in fact the top issue for Republicans, independents and Democrats in the Public Opinion Strategies poll – is improving the public defender system to ensure poor people accused of crimes have proper legal representation. This issue has been the subject of years of study. Last summer a task force of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, legislators and county supervisors issued its final report recommending changes to the system that would bring oversight, accountability and efficiency in efforts to meet this Constitutional mandate.
While there are numerous bills addressing parts of this broad agenda three bill cover most. HB 1415 represents the Public Defender Task Force recommendations. SB 2927 includes addresses most of the initiatives mentioned above including reclassification of simple possession, bail reform for misdemeanors and not allowing old convictions from causing sentence enhancements. HB 1352, titled the Criminal Justice Reform Act, includes many of these reforms as well as the establishment of a “Recidivism Reduction Fund” that would direct savings realized from reducing prison populations to programs designed to prevent new crimes.
Registration for Ctholic Day at the Capitol is open on the website See page 2 for more information.

(De Gruy is a member of Jackson St. Richard Parish, the diocesan Faith In Action Team and the Mississippi State Public Defender.)