By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – For prison ministry coordinator Marvin Edwards, the criminal justice systen should be based on two verses of Scripture: Jeremiah 10:24-25 “Correct me, O Lord, but with justice. Not with your anger, or you will bring me to nothing.” He spoke about how these verses relate to restorative justice reforms needed in the criminal justice process in Mississippi at this year’s Catholic Day at the Capitol (CDC), Wednesday, Feb. 27, at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle. At the event advocates urged participants to support House Bill 1352.
The bill expands access to drug courts and mental health courts so addicts and the mentally ill can get treatment rather than just be incarcerated. It will also allow felons to get occupational licenses as long as their offenses are not related to the profession in which they would like to work. Currently, the state of Mississippi controls licensure for about 60 occupations such as cosmetology, barbering and landscape architecture. Felons can receive training in these, but are banned from getting a license when they get out, making it harder for them to get a job. The bill also eases restrictions on suspending driver’s licenses for parolees, another barrier to being able to work.
Edwards spoke as part of a panel discussing the many issues related to the need for reform. He was joined by Jim Robertson of Empower Mississippi, who spoke about the need to create and sustain reentry programs for people who have served their sentences and who want to become contributing members of society again.
Robertson and Edwards both work on reentry programs. They believe in starting the process as early as during sentencing, particularly in the cases of young offenders who have the potential to use their time in prison to learn from their mistakes and get training in life-skills.
The keynote speaker for the day was John Koufos, national director of reentry initiatives for Right on Crime, a national advocacy group. Koufos told his personal story of conversion. While driving drunk, he almost killed someone else and ended up going to prison. He was able to get sober and wanted to start a new life, but realized how many barriers he would have to overcome – starting with trying to get his driver’s license back. He used his skills as an attorney and his connections in the legal community and his efforts got noticed. He ended up being tapped by former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to lead a state-wide reform effort. He went on to be the executive director of the Safe Streets and Second Chances Initiative and national director for Right on Crime.
Koufos praised the group gathered for CDC and Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant for their work on reforms. “You have a formula here that’s something special,” said Koufos. “Very few states have a coalition like the one you have right here. You need to keep up this momentum,” he added.
Panelist Christina Dent spoke about how her attitude about addiction was transformed when she fostered an addict’s child. “What I found was a mother who deeply loves her son. Her addiction was not about a lack of love,” said Dent. The mother got treatment and was able to restore her family structure. In another case, Dent said the outcome was tragic. The second mother did not get treatment, she got a 15-year prison sentence for drugs. “Her children are growing up without their mother.” Dent said these cases sent her searching for a better answer for addicts. She advocates for a health-care approach to drug use rather than criminalization. She leads discussion groups around the book Chasing the Scream, a story about the history of the criminalization of drugs in America, and runs the advocacy group End it for Good.
Alicia Tarrant, who works with the Gulf Coast Center for Nonviolence came up from Biloxi for the day. “I am interested in restorative justice and want to learn more about it and criminal justice reform. Many victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual assault may have charges related either to their abuse or to drug use or that kind of stuff and I just want to know how they can better be helped,” she said.
Anna McNiel heard some of the CDC speakers at separate events, but wanted to know how their ideas meshed together. “I love hearing how believers can all come together and apply what we can learn from the Bible to all of these real situations and find justice for people. My Dad always said ‘all truth is God’s truth.,’” she said.
Sue Allen, who led the Faith in Action Team in organizing the day, closed the presentations with her own story of seeking restorative justice for her son, a convicted murderer who suffers from a mental illness.
Participants gathered at the Capitol for a news conference in the early afternoon. Bishop Louis Kihneman, Bishop of Biloxi, read a joint statement from himself and Bishop Joseph Kopacz of the Diocese of Jackson. “For compelling reasons, there is a growing consensus throughout our state that punishment must be accompanied by rehabilitation and restoration to community and society,” read the bishop. “We are here today to add our voices, values and experience to the quest for a more just and peaceful society, the visible expression of the Kingdom of God in our midst.”
Governor Bryant has said he will sign the bill into law if it is passed as-is. Advocates still have time to contact their senators to support HB 1352.