On his recent visit to Gulfport, President Trump convened a roundtable discussion to highlight opportunities to reform our criminal justice system. I participated in this important discussion, along with Vice President Pence, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, Gov. Phil Bryant, and other leaders in our state who are working to get these reforms right.
The need for prison reform stems from troubling recidivism rates, in which criminal behavior is repeated after a prisoner serves his or her sentence. In 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that nearly half of federal prisoners put under community supervision are re-arrested within five years. The bureau’s study found that state recidivism numbers were even worse, with 77 percent of state prisoners re-arrested in the same time period.
Like the President, I believe in a strong judicial system that keeps Americans safe and holds criminals accountable. Our nation is governed by laws, and those laws should be enforced. However, we cannot ignore the pervasive social and financial costs of crime, as well as our responsibility to address these challenges in our communities.
A Focus on Rehabilitation
High recidivism rates reflect the difficulties that many prisoners experience when reentering society. At the roundtable, the President heard from Mississippians who work in law enforcement, our courts, our prisons, and our faith communities about the need to help these individuals get back on their feet. In working with prisoners every day, these dedicated Mississippians have seen firsthand how alternative sentencing and second-chance employment can help. As Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall noted in our discussion, lowering recidivism rates could save the state $264 million over a decade.
In addition to cost savings, these efforts are important to supporting safe, drug-free communities. For example, with support of private industries and job training in prison, individuals who pose no risk to others can find meaningful work in their communities after being released. With the proper drug rehabilitation, they can overcome problems with substance abuse.
I have been a longtime supporter of Mississippi’s drug court programs and have participated in a number of drug court graduations over the years. These programs are designed to help nonviolent drug offenders turn their lives around, using strict judicial supervision and mandatory drug tests rather than jail time. As the opioid epidemic continues in our nation, programs like drug courts are more and more important.
Bipartisan Approach Gains Momentum
I am also eager to see the Senate work on a promising bipartisan bill for criminal justice reform. Known as the “FIRST STEP Act,” the legislation has the support of the Trump Administration and a strong majority in the House of Representatives, which overwhelmingly passed the bill earlier this year. It has also earned the endorsement of many major law enforcement groups and faith leaders. The bill would incentivize prisoners to demonstrate good behavior and work toward job skills.
More than 95 percent of the Americans currently incarcerated will eventually be released from prison. Our society is better off as a whole if these individuals return to normal lives when they go home. Educational and vocational pathways can help offenders leave their criminal records behind while building on new opportunities in today’s thriving economy.