White: Too many prisoners is not the problem
By State Auditor Shad White
I’ve heard it a thousand times: Mississippi allegedly has a “mass incarceration” problem. It’s time someone pointed out the reason we have so many in prison, though. We have a violent crime problem.
Jackson, our capital, was the per capita homicide capital of the country in 2021. And it’s not just Jackson. The CDC ranks Mississippi as the top state for per capita deaths due to homicide in the country. Even more rural counties like Coahoma and Washington rank among the top counties in the country for per capita deaths due to homicide according to a 2017 WLBT report.
Aside from murder, our prisons are full of people who committed other serious crimes, too. Just 18% of Mississippi prisoners are in for drug-related crimes according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Many of the rest are convicted of violent crimes like rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and burglary. Another large group is convicted of serious nonviolent crimes like embezzlement and fraud.
Here’s the unpopular truth: our prisons are full because we need to get dangerous criminals off the street. If you’re arguing for people to be let out of prison, you’re arguing to risk the lives of the people suffering the most from violent crime—folks who often live in our poorest communities. A recent Wall Street Journal piece by a former U.S. Attorney General suggested nearly 2/3 of serious crime in America is committed by 1% of the population. This 1%—mostly young men—need to be taken off the streets so others can be safe.
But what about everyone in prison for carrying small amounts of drugs, some say? Americans have been led to believe that percentage is high. According a VOX poll, Americans believe 61% of prisoners are behind bars for drug-related offenses. The truth is far different. Again, drug-related inmates only account for 18% of prisoners in Mississippi. And some of those 18% are there for selling drugs—pushing poison on our streets, which should result in prison—or were defendants who pleaded a more serious charge down to a drug crime.
We need to ignore talking points, focus on real numbers, and when the police arrest someone, put them away and keep them there. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 20% of murderers serve less than five years in prison. The same source says more than half of murderers have a previous felony conviction record. Per research compiled by Rafeal Mangual of the Manhattan Institute, the average state prisoner has been arrested more than 10 times. This “catch and release” system is literally killing Americans. Put differently, there probably ought to be more people in prison.
We’ve seen the consequences of “catch and release” in Jackson. At the Mississippi Mudbugs festival this year, more than 100 rounds were fired, and a person was killed. Days later, one of the two people arrested for the shooting was identified as a young man who had already been charged for armed robbery and carjacking months before. This is one of many stories in Jackson like this.
Beyond getting criminals off the street, what else can we do to stop this crime spree? Again, according to Mangual there are a large number of strong studies showing more police equals less crime.
Democrats and Republicans in the ‘90s once agreed on this. Bill Clinton even campaigned on putting 100,000 more police officers on the street. But the more popular slogan today among many is “Defund the Police.” Nothing could be worse for the families who suffer the most from violent crime. Polling shows at-risk communities know it, too. Gallup found over 80% of Black Americans wanted the same or more police presence in their community.
Not only are more police popular and make communities safer, they also benefit taxpayers. One of our recent studies in the Auditor’s office found the average homicide in Mississippi costs taxpayers more than $900,000 per death. We should spend money paying good salaries to police instead of losing money every time a person is murdered.
Bottom line: we need more police, so we need to pay police more. Society must also stop badmouthing police so young people will see this as the honorable profession it is. We owe this to those who put their lives on the line to protect us.
If we get serious about ending “catch and release” and putting more police on the street, our state can conquer this challenge. If we act as if “mass incarceration” is the primary problem, we will fail. The people who complain of mass incarceration are more interested in advancing their own political agenda than in protecting the poor. We must ignore their agenda and get tough.
Shad White is the 42nd State Auditor of Mississippi
This article was originally published in the Clarion-Ledger