We can’t incarcerate our way out of nonviolent crime

When I decided to run for district attorney, my opponent was a 27-year incumbent with a well-earned reputation for chasing severe sentences. I, on the other hand, was a 32-year- old who thought America, and especially Mississippi, sent too many people to prison for nonviolent crimes.

{mosads}At this time, Mississippi had the second highest incarceration rate in the country. The four counties in the district – Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and Noxubee – made up 7.5 percent of the prison population in Mississippi but only 4.7 percent of the state’s total population, the highest incarceration rate per 100,000 residents in Mississippi.

If tough on crime meant sending a lot of people to prison, including non-violent offenders, I had no chance of winning. I needed to challenge that paradigm and reassure voters that improving public safety and confronting mass incarceration were twin goals.

I needed to offer alternatives that would keep the community safe and help people avoid the scars of prison.

Thankfully, I had a great campaign consultant – my wife. When she suggested I pick three words that epitomized the changes I believed we needed in our criminal justice system, the words came to me: Tough, Smart, Fair.

During campaign speeches, I acknowledged the importance of being tough on violent crime, but also highlighted the reasons to be smart on non-violent crimes. Prison has a lasting impact on people’s ability to get jobs or housing. A lack of adequate investment in rehabilitation services in our current prison system causes a cycle of incarceration.

As I told many audiences, to widespread agreement in my corner of Mississippi, a lot of people come out of prison worse than they were when they went in.

Given this reality, I campaigned on the notion that we needed to find alternatives to incarceration. Programs like pre-trial diversion can help people deal with their underlying problems, such as drug addiction or unemployment.

As is to be expected, there was significant backlash to this message; the predictable scare tactics. I was going to let criminals run rampant. Speaking out against and deviating from historical norms inevitably leads to criticism but as criminal justice leaders, district attorneys must take that stand.

The reality is prosecutors are a key component in the criminal justice system. Most defendants plead guilty and have to reach a plea agreement with the district attorney. More often than not, judges accept these plea offers. Since the “War on Drugs,” most prosecutors have campaigned on seeking the longest possible sentences, even for non-violent offenders, and bragged about these sentences as “tough on crime.”

Evidence indicates that this approach hasn’t made us safer and caused significant collateral damage.

To the surprise of many, the voters in my district overwhelmingly supported criminal justice reform. The people of East Mississippi are considered traditional conservatives, but my election showed that the voting population, including conservatives, had gotten enough of long sentences for nonviolent offenders.

They realize this approach has wasted limited state funds and ruined lives. I’m not naïve enough to think my election indicates a trend. It took decades to build the “tough on crime” mentality that persists today and it will require dedicated leaders to capture the national spirit and define a new approach.

Today, the U.S. Congress is considering two bills that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. House Speaker Paul Ryan has pledged a vote on the Sentencing Reform Act, and the companion bill in the Senate – the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act – has strong bipartisan support. I hope our federal representatives will embrace criminal justice reform.

I’ve also spoken with district attorneys from around the country who believe that we can lead this culture shift in the justice system. In the coming months I will be working with the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution to develop policies focused on improving my office’s interactions with the community.

Making these changes won’t be easy, but if we focus our collective energy on building offices that are tough, smart, and fair, we will move closer and closer to a more just system.

The voters in my district gave this new approach a chance and I think the country is also ready for a criminal justice system that realizes it is better to be smart on crime than tough.

Scott Colom was sworn in as District Attorney for Circuit Court District Sixteen of Mississippi in January of 2016.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.









Tags civil rights Crime Incarceration Mississippi Paul Ryan Prison Prison reform Sentencing reform
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