JACKSON — Earlier this year, President Trump signed into law The First Step Act, a first step toward criminal justice reform. The goal is to reduce the sky-high U.S. incarceration rate, which is five times higher than other developed countries in the world.

The Mississippi Legislature is likely to pass similar reforms at the state level. House Bill 1352, the Criminal Justice Reform Act, passed 110-5 and now is being considered in the state Senate. Gov. Phil Bryant called for criminal justice reform in his last State of the State address, so he is sure to sign any legislative efforts into law.

The state reforms are far more important than the federal reforms because two million prisoners are in state and local prisons compared to 225,000 in federal prisons.

Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, which means it has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. There must be a better way.

The proposed reforms are significant, expanding interventional drug and mental health courts as a diversion from prison. The bill also eliminates the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for people who fail to pay fines and face minor drug charges. In our auto-based state, with practically no mass transit, license suspension has effectively forced minor lawbreakers into unemployment, making it even harder to get their lives back together.

Another aspect of the bill is to eliminate non-violent convicts from being banned from obtaining occupational licenses. Ex-convicts need jobs, not lifelong banishment.

All of this points to a profound political change in Mississippi and the nation. Lock ’em up and throw away the key is losing ground. Politicians are no longer scared to death of being viewed as soft on crime. Numerous polls show voters are overwhelmingly in favor of reform.

If we can do a better job at keeping people out of prison, we have a much better chance of reducing the $300 million a year we spend on incarceration in Mississippi — half as much as we spend on all forms of higher education.

Last year, I spent three weeks sitting through a federal trial involving the East Mississippi Correctional Facility. It was a huge investment of my time, but I realized I would never get a better opportunity to see inside the belly of our prison beast. I never saw a single one of our state leaders at the trial.

I was shocked by the intricate and detailed testimony. Let me sum it up: Our prisons are run by gangs.

As a result, our prisons are gang factories. Once in prison, you have to join a gang for protection. When you get out, you are a gang member, forced into a life of crime. What an irony. Prisons are designed to decrease crime, but they are doing the exact opposite.

Low pay for guards is a key problem. This makes it easy for the gangs to recruit the guards.

Private prison companies can cut costs by letting the gangs do the work of maintaining order. In return, the gangs get the contraband franchise — a money-making machine. The gangs now have the ability to seamlessly operate both inside and outside the prison system.

When Chicago gangland warfare spun out of control, our society was forced to abandon Prohibition. Similarly, we must begin the process of decriminalizing drugs. Profits from illegal drugs fuel the gangs. And just as bad moonshine killed thousands, street drugs are deadly, killing tens of thousands.

The War on Drugs was admirable in its intent, but the cure has proven worse than the disease. This 50-year experiment has failed.

We must begin to see addiction for what it is, a disease, and treat it accordingly.

My cousin Brent Hardy is a defense attorney in a small city in Texas, Boerne. He lives and breathes this every day. This week he sent me the following email. His politics are as conservative as they come, but his indictment of our current criminal justice system is scathing:

I read your column about criminal justice reform, and I felt compelled to observe it as among the most concise, persuasive arguments I have read in support of changing the status quo.

Sadly, we face the same problem in Texas. I have seen countless clients sentenced to years in prison because of addiction.

It may surprise some that, when they first appear before the court, they are typically granted probation. But one of the conditions of probation is abstinence from drug use. With little (or substandard) assistance from the state, they invariably relapse. This is, after all, what addicts do.

So they are sent to prison as punishment for violating their probation. After sufficient expenditure of tax dollars and passage of time, they will ultimately be released.

No one, of course, should expect these “ex-cons” to be the same people getting released from prison as those who went in. In addition to everything learned and experienced while there, they are now emblazoned with a contemporary Scarlet Letter. They are now known as “convicted felons,” so they are virtually unemployable and, in many cases, they will be ineligible for public assistance. It should surprise no one that they return to the only friends, neighborhood and drugs they have ever known.

They will, almost inevitably, be arrested again. But this time, their request for probation will fall on deaf ears (since they performed so poorly on their first attempt). So they will be sentenced to even more years in prison (to teach them a lesson), and they will someday be released and return to their friends, and the giant wheel of “justice” will keep turning.

As a taxpayer, I am outraged by the waste of money. As a human and a Christian, I am overwhelmed with sadness for the loss of so many joyous experiences that have been squandered. Instead of remaining free to pursue life’s wondrous opportunities, these people are doomed to live and die in poverty and loneliness.

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