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Do we put too many people in prison?

By Douglas Carswell


Do we put too many people in prison?Mississippi, it is often said, has an incarceration problem. Our state locks up too many people for too long, we are told.


Over the past two decades, Mississippi’s prison population has in fact fallen.  In January 2014 the prison population of our state was 21,008.  By January 2022, that figure had declined by almost a fifth to 16,931.


Those who argue Mississippi should incarcerate fewer people have been getting exactly what they asked for.


Now let’s take a look at what has happened to violent crime in our state over that time.

From 2016 to 2022, violent crime in our state increased by 741 percent, according to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.  We went from 538 violent crimes a year to 4,529.  That is 3,991 more violent crimes and more victims.

Anti-prison advocates like to argue that locking people up in large numbers does not work.  Crime, they point out, was high even when Mississippi locked people up in greater numbers than almost anywhere else in America.  The trouble is that Mississippi after these anti-incarceration reforms is a vastly more violent place than Mississippi was without them.


In 2013, the year before Mississippi enacted legislation designed to reduce the rate of incarceration, 28 people out of every 100,000 Jackson residents were murdered.  By 2021, that number had nearly quadrupled to 101 homicide victims per 100,000 residents in our capital city.


Of course, just because there has been a surge in violent crime at the same time that the prison population has been reduced, it does not automatically follow that the former has been caused by the latter.


The reality is, however, that across America the average state prisoner released has around five previous convictions.  That means that we have a pretty good idea of who is committing the lion’s share of the extra crime; those that have already been convicted and released.


“But it is so expensive to lock up so many people!” the reformists insist.


It is expensive to maintain prisons, just as it is expensive to maintain our country’s borders.  But there are some things that the government needs to do even if costly.


As Shad White, our State Auditor has shown, leniency is expensive, too.  According to estimates by the State Auditor, each homicide in Mississippi costs taxpayers between $900,000 and $1.2 million.  On top of that, of course, come all kinds of other costs paid for by the victims of the violent crime.


“But what about the human cost of incarcerating people?” the anti-prison advocates are quick to ask.  “Locking people up harms families, and the children of inmates suffer.”


Anyone who assumes that releasing violent criminals back into the bosom of their families will automatically be good news for those families might not have met many violent criminals.


Eight years ago, back when every policy-maker in Jackson seemed intent on drifting along with the anti-incarceration vibe, we were told that there were better ways to reduce crime than by filling the prisons.


Unfortunately, we have yet to find them.  When you factor in selection bias, there is remarkably little evidence that most rehabilitation programs have the efficacy that those who run them want them to have.


Anti-prison advocates are currently campaigning to have Mississippi’s Parole Board release more parole-eligible prisoners from custody.


It is true that our Parole Board currently approves a lower percentage of parole applications now than it has done for years.  But that is because there has been a massive surge in the number of people automatically entitled to apply for early release to the Parole Board.


Why the increase in parole applications?  Because of legislation that the anti-prison advocacy groups helped pass which automatically entitles violent offenders to appeal to the Parole Board in the first place.


The Parole Board has recently been criticized for getting some parole decisions wrong.  I can’t help wondering if the Board might have done a better job if they had not been flooded by new cases at the insistence of anti-prison activists.


The tragedy of this misguided anti-prison agenda is not only that it is driving a surge in crime.  It has detracted from Mississippi implementing the type of prison reform that conservatives ought to support.


More needs to be done to make our prisons more humane.  The prison system ought to do a far better job of differentiating between violent criminals and the non-violent.  With so many young men graduating from the prison system each year, surely we could do a better job of ensuring they emerge with a better set of life skills?


These reforms are only going to be attainable if we have a prison system that achieves its primary purpose; locking up bad people in order to prevent them from doing bad things to good people.


There is now overwhelming evidence that we should abandon Mississippi’s flirtation with an anti-incarceration agenda – and it is not just a question of crime.  If Mississippi wants to see the kind of economic growth that other states have experienced, we need to reduce our crime rates.


Douglas Carswell is the CEO & President of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.


  1. Edward on May 22, 2023 at 9:03 pm

    Look at all the habitual offenders that are non-violent and give them a chance at parole,the 99-19-83 is outrageous because you committed a violent crime 20 yrs ago doesn’t mean your dangerous at all people change with age?

  2. Natasha Jones on May 22, 2023 at 9:48 pm

    The article presents the argument that anti-incarceration reforms in Mississippi have led to an increase in violent crime and should be reconsidered. However, it is important to analyze the claims made in the article and provide a counter perspective based on empirical studies, laws, and statistics supporting anti-incarceration reforms.

    While the article mentions a decline in Mississippi’s prison population over the past two decades, it fails to acknowledge the complex factors influencing crime rates. It selectively focuses on the increase in violent crime without considering broader trends or alternative explanations. Multiple studies have shown that the relationship between incarceration rates and crime is not straightforward, and simply locking up more individuals does not necessarily lead to lower crime rates.

    Research has indicated that focusing on prevention, rehabilitation, and addressing the root causes of crime can be more effective in reducing recidivism and promoting public safety. Evidence-based programs and alternatives to incarceration, such as community-based supervision, drug courts, and restorative justice initiatives, have shown promising results in reducing reoffending rates and promoting successful reintegration.

    Furthermore, it is crucial to address the significant social and economic costs associated with high incarceration rates. Incarceration not only strains government budgets but also has negative consequences for families and communities. Families of incarcerated individuals often face financial hardships, disrupted relationships, and intergenerational cycles of involvement in the criminal justice system.

    By investing in education, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and job training programs, society can provide individuals with the tools and support they need to reintegrate successfully. This approach not only promotes rehabilitation but also contributes to economic growth by reducing the burden on taxpayers and enabling individuals to become productive members of society.

    It is important to approach criminal justice policies with a balanced perspective, considering both public safety and the well-being of individuals and communities. Anti-incarceration reforms aim to address the shortcomings of punitive approaches and seek more effective, evidence-based solutions. By focusing on prevention, rehabilitation, and community support, we can create a safer and more just society for all.

  3. Bryant J. Lewis on May 23, 2023 at 3:41 pm

    Releasing non-violent offenders, where? Surely not in the state of Mississippi. My father has served prison time since 1990 and only to be released too Mississippi so he could serve 5 yrs. on a non-violent charge from 1989. And absolutely want him to serve it. If Tenn. saw fit to release him after nearly 30yrs. Then why won’t Mississippi do the same. Why hold him for 5 more years of his life? When is enough, enough? He was 22 when he went to prison in Mississippi and given probation he violated in Tennessee and after 29yrs. Transported to Mississippi and has too serve time on a charger older than the average prison guard there. Why would they hold him? Then too say that they are looking for ways to release non-violent offenders, well look his way. Release my father Bryant Lewis #73599. Burglary case from 1989 non-violent. Review this file, prison reform?

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