One of the few nice things about growing old is historical perspective. It’s one thing to read about history. It’s another to live through it.
I vividly remember the skyrocketing crime of the early 1990s and the huge debate about how to battle it.
It was the high-point of the domination of mass mainstream media. The verdict of the mass media was clear: Incarceration would not reduce crime. Only education and rehabilitation could lower crime rates.
Twenty years later, the verdict is indisputable. Locking criminals up worked. Crime rates are about half today what they were 20 years ago.
In 1991, the national violent crime rate was 758 per 100,000 people. Jackson was a hotbed. Crime was simply out of control. Today, violent crime rates are 403 per 100,000. Jackson has followed the trend.
The national murder rate in 1991 was 9.8 per 100,000. Today it is 4.8 per 100,000. The property crime rate in 1991 was 5,140 per 100,000. Today it is 2,941.
This is a phenomenal turnaround. It didn’t come cheap. Today, over 2.2 million Americans are behind bars, giving the United States - by far - the highest incarceration rate in the world. In comparison, China has the second highest number of prisoners. China has 1.5 million prisoners despite a population four times greater than the United States.
Put another way, the U.S. incarceration rate is 753 per 100,000. After the United States, Poland has the second highest incarceration rate of 224 per 100,000.
Indeed, the United States contains 25 percent of all the prisoners in the world. Since 1990, the United States has doubled its number of imprisoned people. One in 50 American males are in prison or jail.
Jackson crime statistics are 4,479 per 100,000, about 50 percent higher than the national average. Mississippi as a whole has about 3,250 crimes per 100,000 - about six percent higher than the national average. Like the nation, Mississippi’s incarceration rate has doubled since 1990. During this period Mississippi has seen crime rates drop about 25 percent - about half the national drop.
These statistics should give pause to Mississippi’s surprising turnaround on incarceration.
Gov. Phil Bryant’s commission on prison reform has introduced a variety of reforms to reduce incarceration. The reforms have been passed by the state Legislature and will soon be signed into law.
Highlights of the reform include expanding parole, giving judges more sentencing discretion, expanding drug courts and raising the felony theft threshold from $500 to $1,000. The net effect is to reduce the number of Mississippi criminals who are behind bars.
Several DAs and sheriffs, include Madison-Rankin DA Mike Guest, have objected to this turn toward leniency.
Mississippi politics are always unpredictable. With the first Republican government monopoly in over a hundred years, who could have predicted one of their biggest policy changes would be to soften Mississippi’s 20-year crackdown on crime.
It’s the money. The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) budget has risen from $276 million in 2003 to $362 million today. Our Republican leadership would rather reduce incarceration than increase taxes.
Let’s hope our state leaders are right. There are numerous studies that argue the cost of incarceration is far less than the economic cost of a criminal on the loose.
One study by the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research concluded that in 2008 the average cost to imprison a criminal was $44,165 annually compared to $165,000 in annual victim costs.
A criminal commits around 15 property crimes a year. If each property crime does $2,000 in damage, we are breaking even. When you factor in the psychological damage caused by a burglary, we are coming out ahead.
It costs $15,000 to incarcerate a Mississippi criminal. If a free criminal commits one property crime per week causing $2,000 in property damage, the social cost of release would be more than $100,000. Not a good deal for the law abiding citizens of our state.
Let’s hope our judges and prison officials can figure out which prisoners to release and which ones to keep locked up. Otherwise, prison reform will lead to more crime and a quick voter backlash.
One ironic last-minute amendment to the prison reform bill perpetuates Mississippi’s reputation for knee-jerk reactions to national trends.
Just as the rest of the nation is busy legalizing marijuana, state legislators increased the penalty for selling two pounds of pot to a mandatory 10-year sentence with no chance of parole. This underscores the schizophrenic nature of the issue.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates violent crimes cost the country over $250 billion a year. Insurance payments related to property crimes are $72 billion a year. Other studies show the cost of crime to be up to 10 times that.
Using the federal stats, Mississippi’s pro rata annual cost of crime is an estimated $3.2 billion, 3.5 percent of our state’s GDP. This exceeds by a factor of 10 the cost of incarceration. Using those figures, just a three percent increase in crime would wipe out a 30 percent savings in the MDOC budget.
Lock ’em up or let ’em go? Trends on grand public policy issues are cyclical. We are now entering an era of leniency and prison reduction. Let’s hope it works.