Hilary Allen – January 2020
A new bill was proposed on 23 January 2020, Senate Bill 2123, that would give those imprisoned in Mississippi for violent offenses the right to seek parole after serving half their sentence or 20 years, whichever shorter, unless they are serving a sentence which explicitly excludes parole. Currently most life prisoners would be given parole rights if this Bill became law. The Bill has been referred to Judiciary Committee B for consideration.Kids With 47 Years has written to all the Senators on this committee, urging them to give it their bipartisan support.
Please share this letter if you have the opportunity to do so.
I am writing to you as members of Judiciary Committee B, about Senate Bill 2123. This bill includes a provision for inmates serving life sentences for violent crimes to seek parole after 20 years. Currently these inmates have no parole access so cannot be considered for release until they turn 65. This leads to striking inconsistencies: a man sentenced to life at 50 could be released after 15 years. But a teenager, sentenced to life at 18, faces a minimum of 47 years.
Ø Criminal justice reform is a bipartisan issue
This bill has bipartisan support. Please work together as a Committee and a Senate, to make this legislation an achievement of the whole State.
As the President has demonstrated with the First Steps Act, bipartisan action on criminal justice is not only possible and just, but also a vote winner. Sentencing reform is not about being soft on crime. It’s about being strong on the possibility of healing communities, making prisons safer, and promoting American values. To quote him: “America is a nation that believes in redemption”.
Ø Passing this Bill will make our prison system safer
The absence of parole for reformed offenders adds to all the problems surrounding mass incarceration. It swells prison numbers and thus the intolerable conditions for prison staff and inmates alike. It leaves inmates feeling they have no hope of redemption and therefore have ‘nothing to lose’ from engaging in violence or gang action within the prison: a recipe for an unsafe institution.
Ø Passing this Bill could save many $ millions of unproductive expenditure
Latest MDOC figures (2018) indicate that incarceration costs the public more than $19K per year per inmate. At current prices, this means an offender sentenced to life at 18 will cost the Mississippi taxpayer almost $1 million over the 47 years that will result from this sentence. Mississippi cannot afford this.
Worse, the current rate of expenditure will surely have to rise because of the need for massive public investment in infrastructure and increased staffing if the current level of incarceration continues. Parchman prison is crumbling, condemned, unsafe and dangerously understaffed. Several other prisons are little better. Mississippi cannot afford to rebuild a prison system big enough for 1% of its population.
If a prisoner has reformed and is no longer dangerous, no additional public good is gained by incarcerating them until they are too old to be productive. Allowing a reformed prisoner to be released after 20 years instead of 47 years would save the public, at current rates, more than $0.5 million per prisoner. I’m sure you could find better ways of spending the tax dollars of your hard working voters.
Ø Passing this Bill could protect and enhance Communities
The current lack of parole disproportionately affects poor communities and black communities. It disproportionately removes young able-bodied working-age young men from those communities. This weakens the communities financially and socially. Returning reformed offenders to their communities only when they are too old to work or contribute places a further burden on these communities, as well as on the public purse. Making ‘reform’ rather than ‘age’ the criterion for release will help to heal broken communities.
Ø Passing this Bill is in line with American values
Three fundamental principles underpin this nation’s criminal justice system
- Retribution – This Bill is about people who have already been punished. Think of everything you’ve done, achieved, contributed, enjoyed since the millennium turned. Or all the life you plan to live before 2040. What it would mean if all of that were deleted? Twenty years in prison is not a soft punishment.
- Restoration – a violent crime can never be undone, but a paroled offender can contribute as a citizen, and perhaps help steer others away from crime. If imprisoned till they are old they can never make such amends; they can only be a burden.
- Transformation: people do learn in prison. People change. After 20 years in prison, many of them will have reflected, grown up, repented. They won’t be the same as when they went in. By allowing prisoners who do reform the opportunity to seek parole, this legislation affirms this key criminal justice principle.
Ø Passing this Bill could enhance the reputation of Mississippi
Last year President Trump praised Mississippi for its criminal justice reforms. But a few months later the world looked on while the prison system in Mississippi broke down, exposing severe long standing problems. The current reality is that Mississippi incarceration rates stand out internationally and conditions in Mississippi prisons fall massively short of United Nations Minimum Standards.
The prohibition of parole for inmates serving very long sentences simply adds to this. Other states and countries reduce their prison population by releasing prisoners who have reformed and are no longer a risk to society, but Mississippi does not. Please help Mississippi build proudly on what it has already achieved, not lag behind the rest of the world.
Ø Passing this Bill would bring hope to prisoners and with it the incentive for reform
Taking away the possibility of parole means there is no differentiation between prisoners who reform and those who don’t. For the sake of justice as well as for the motivation to reform, the law should allow a distinction to be made here. It is the right thing to do.
All human beings need hope. In a Christian country even those who have sinned terribly should be recognized as brothers and sisters. So I end as I began: “America is a nation that believes in redemption”.
Thank you for reading this letter. I hope you will lend your support to Senate Bill 2123.
Dr Hilary Allen, BSc (Psychology, Sociology), PhD (Law)
Campaigner, Kids With 47 Years