Lena Mitchell

LENA MITCHELL

In his State of the State speech Monday Gov. Tate Reeves announced that he is closing one of the most troublesome units at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Unit 29.

At least 12 inmates have died in Mississippi prisons in less than a month, most of them at Parchman.

While traveling earlier this month I learned of a system that seeks to divert juvenile offenders from the criminal justice system through restorative justice.

Mississippi has the third highest prison incarceration rate in the United States, trailing only Oklahoma and Louisiana, and Mississippi taxpayers spend more than $300 million per year supporting these prison costs, according to the Mississippi ACLU.

While the state implemented criminal justice reforms between 2013 and 2016 that resulted in a drop in the prison population and broadened eligibility for parole, the past two years have seen a new rise in the state’s prison population.

More than 20 percent of Mississippi’s prison population, as well as those on probation and parole, are people convicted on drug charges. Recent rises in the prison population have been drug-related convictions, while convictions for other nonviolent crimes have dropped.

In 2018, the ACLU proposed criminal justice reforms they called a “Blueprint for Smart Justice” for each of the 50 states. In it they proposed sentencing changes and alternatives to incarceration that include:

●Reforming bail, evaluating prosecution practices, reforming sentences for burglary and considering more alternatives to incarceration.

●Reducing low-level drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.

●Reforming the state’s minimum and maximum sentencing laws.

The Mississippi ACLU has re-emphasized its commitment to continue in 2020 pressing for our state’s common sense reforms, and perhaps restorative justice is a strategy that can be added to the mix.

Restorative justice policies have been adopted by 20 states since the first Balanced and Restorative Justice Project was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1998. This project originated from more than 20 years of research under the DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Even our southern neighbors of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina – along with Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Virginia, West Virginia, Colorado, Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine – have bought into the restorative justice movement and implemented laws to support it.

Simply put, restorative justice seeks to address the harm to the victim and to reintegrate the offender into the community.

It requires the person who has caused the harm, the person who has been harmed, their families and other community members to come together to try to repair the harm and rebuild relationships, said Sugatha Baliga. A survivor of sexual assault, Baliga wrote a first-person article for Vox News about leaving her law practice to work in restorative justice.

Not only is the restorative justice movement growing, but school districts have begun to use it as an alternative to suspension and other disciplinary action.

As a social justice newsletter put it, “The peaceful resolution of disputes, agreed upon by all parties, and inclusive of self-reflection and atonement seems like a very good model, almost Christian in nature.”

LENA MITCHELL is a retired Daily Journal reporter who continues to write a regular column. Readers can contact her at lena.mitchell.dj@gmail.com.

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