Among the achievements of the recently concluded session of the Mississippi Legislature was lawmakers’ widely bipartisan decision to move toward a criminal justice system that puts greater emphasis on rehabilitation and less on punishment.
A bill awaiting Gov. Phil Bryant’s expected signature would expand the use of drug courts as an alternative to incarceration for those whose nonviolent crimes are rooted in their addiction; would end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines or minor drug offenses; and would make it easier for felons who’ve done their time to obtain occupational licenses.
The reforms could have gone further. Bryant at the start of the legislative session recommended as much. Nevertheless, the fact that anything got passed in an election year that could be used against incumbents as “being soft on crime” is a significant step in the right direction.
It signals that there is a growing recognition among public officials, regardless of party, that incarceration, except for the most incorrigible offenders, is too expansive and does more harm than good. In enacting these reforms, Mississippi is following a trend being embraced in states across the nation as well as in Congress, where just a couple of decades ago the thinking was to put more people behind bars for longer stretches of time.
One area, unfortunately, that Mississippi failed to address in criminal justice reform was a more comprehensive and logical way to restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentence.
Mississippi’s current list of disenfranchising crimes is nonsensical. It includes 22 crimes — vastly varying in severity — for which a conviction brings a permanent loss of voting rights unless the Legislature votes to restore them or a governor grants clemency. Some of the disenfranchising crimes are comparatively minor, while serious crimes that you would think should be on the list, such as aggravated assault, are not.
The courts may ultimately intervene and declare Mississippi’s law is unconstitutional because it has a disproportionate impact on black voters, as a current federal lawsuit argues.
But even if the courts refrain from getting involved, Mississippi should revise its list of disenfranchising crimes to either include all felonies (and thus eliminate the current inconsistencies) or just the most severe ones. It also should create an uncomplicated procedure to allow voting rights to be restored once felons complete their sentence, as at least 40 other states already do.
If we wish to help felons see there is a better way than a life of crime, we must make it easier for them to put their mistakes behind them, find gainful employment and participate in civic life. Restoring their voting rights should be part of giving them another chance.