Report Examines ‘Safety Beyond Sentencing’ in MS, U.S.

Making jails and prisons safer and sentencing more equitable are the goals of a report marking 50 years of mass incarceration in the U.S. In Mississippi, at least 84,000 people a year are booked into local jails, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Crime is a concern across the country, according to Nicole D. Porter, report co-author with The Sentencing Project. But the group’s research finds much more could be done to prevent mass incarceration – including relying on community-based interventions and crisis response teams, rather than the police, in some situations.

“So there needs to be other priorities and other investments in ways to reduce crime, prevent crime in the first place, and then to respond to crime when it does occur,” Porter said. “So, that was the goal behind The Sentencing Project publishing this report.”

The report said police have become the “default first responders” to social issues, from drug use to homelessness and mental health crises – when there often are more effective, and less expensive, ways to intervene.

Liz Komar, sentencing reform counsel with The Sentencing Project and a report co-author, explained one form of community intervention is supporting violence interruption programs in neighborhoods.

“Confronting violence at the community level before it happens, interrupting those cycles through credible messengers, is a way to keep communities safe – without doubling down on what we know are failed approaches to actually addressing harm,” Komar said.

Mississippi has one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, at 1,031 people per 100,000 population. Komar said that is driven in part by what she calls “extreme sentencing” laws that relegate people to years or decades behind bars.

“The Sentencing Project recommends – across the board, in every state – capping sentences at a maximum of 20 years, and then, shifting other sentences proportionately downward,” Komar explained.

Porter urged Mississippi legislators to work on finding ways to guide residents of smaller communities to invest in more positive alternatives to locking people up.

“What Mississippi could do and should do, is approach public safety in a new way,” Porter said. “And hopefully, the recommendations outlined in the report can offer information to policymakers who are looking for new ideas, innovative ideas that can strengthen communities, as opposed to weakening them.”

The report also noted deep racial and ethnic disparities in the legal system, from the point of arrest to post-incarceration experiences that include restrictions on voting and employment.

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