Am I the only one who thniks the solution to high black incarceration rate is for black folks to stop committing crime?
That seems like a simple solution to me.
That seems like a simple solution to me.
Mississippi's prison rate 2nd nationally
For the past nine years, Winfred Forkner has been serving life without parole in Mississippi for stealing an air conditioner.
"He's never supposed to come home," said his wife, Patricia Forkner, 40, of Woodville, who's been raising four children on her own.
"It's, Lord, it's been insane. The family's not whole without a father," she said. "The finances are so unbearable. It's not easy to take care of them by myself. I only make it by the grace of God."
Winfred Forkner, 51, was sentenced under the "three strikes you're out" rule, which applies to felony convictions. His two prior convictions were more than 30 years ago - armed robbery in 1976 and escape from prison in 1977.
Such get-tough laws adopted in the 1990s are one reason the overall incarceration rate in Mississippi is the second highest in the nation, experts say.
Statistics released by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics for the first half of 2007 show 723 of every 100,000 Mississippians were in prison. The only higher rate was Louisiana's at 857.
Under the three-strikes rule, "You can get a life sentence for a minor property crime," said Marc Mauer, executive director for The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization based in Washington.
Mauer said mandatory sentences take too much discretion away from judges. "How do you distinguish between the drug kingpin and the kid who's selling to support his own habit?" he asked. "We probably want to treat them differently."
If current trends continue, he said a black male in the U.S. would have about a one-in-three chance of going to prison in his lifetime. For a Hispanic male, it's one in six; for a white male, one in 17.
"If the figures were one in three white males, we would not stand for anything like that," Mauer said.
In Mississippi, a black man is as likely to go to prison as he is to a public university.
Since 1988, 53,846 black men have spent time behind bars in the state, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Over that same time frame, 54,376 black men attended public universities in Mississippi, according to the state College Board.
"This shows we place a higher value on incarceration than we do education," said Jackson's City Council President Leslie Burl McLemore, a political history professor at Jackson State University. "It says we just have our priorities upside down. Clearly, if we invested in education on the front end, we wouldn't have so many people on the back end."
Putting people behind bars is just the beginning of the costs that Mississippi must bear, experts say. Many children grow up with a parent behind bars. Former offenders struggle to make a new life on the outside, stripped of voting rights and job opportunities.
Black men and women are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men and women, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics study.
"Mississippi has always had a 'lock 'em up' attitude about crime," former Corrections Commissioner Robert Johnson said.
During 2007, Mississippi saw its prison population go from 21,069 to 22,335 - a 6 percent increase. That was the third-highest rise among states, trailing New Hampshire (6.6 percent) and Iowa (6.1 percent).
Another reason Mississippi's incarceration rate exceeds the national rate is "truth in sentencing." In 1995, the state Legislature passed a law, ordering nearly all those convicted to serve 85 percent of their sentences.
In 2000, the Legislature removed that requirement for first-time nonviolent offenders, enabling them to qualify for parole after serving a fourth of their sentences.
This past regular session, lawmakers broadened that eligibility to include any offender who's never been convicted of a violent crime, drug trafficking or enhanced penalties.
The state Department of Corrections is investigating whether 6,200 inmates in prison for nonviolent offenses have any violent crimes in their past, Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said. The state Parole Board already has received the names of 500 nonviolent offenders eligible for parole.
"This bill will have an impact to reduce our population," Epps said. "I think it's a good piece of legislation, and I don't think it will affect public safety one bit."
Reducing the prison population is important, said House Corrections Committee Chairman Bennett Malone, D-Carthage.
The original law was an overreaction to a problem, he said. "If not for drugs and alcohol, we'd have a lot less of the prison population than we have right now."
More treatment programs are needed, Malone said. "We're having a lot of college-age kids caught with drugs. If you're just throwing them in that general population, you may be doing society more harm than good. You may be making real criminals out of them."
The state also needs to do more to teach inmates a trade, he said. "We're working closely with the junior colleges. We're going to have more work-force training in our prisons. I think that's going to pay some good dividends."
Johnson said Mississippi spends little on inmate vocational programs, despite that the rate for repeat offenses severely drops once an inmate learns a trade.
Mississippi needs to do more to take advantage of alternatives to prison, he said. "It's one-third of the cost of putting them behind bars, but when you talk to legislators about it, they give you dirty, cold looks like you're soft on crime."
Earlier this year, a Pew Center study found that more than one in 100 adults are behind bars in the U.S., which leads the world with nearly 2.3 million. China is second with 1.5 million, despite that it has four times the population of the U.S.
"You can either build prison cells or college classrooms, but you can't do both," Mauer said. "Legislators need to think about what kind of future we want to plan for our children."
Growing numbers of inmates affect society at large, he said. "For starters, there's the impact on families of prisoners. The estimates there are 1.5 million children who have a parent behind bars. One of every 14 black children has a parent in prison."
Penalizing these inmates continues beyond prison, he said. Eleven states, including Mississippi, strip offenders of voting rights, sometimes for good.
A 2004 University of Minnesota study concluded that 7 percent of Mississippi's adult population cannot vote. "The study shows 13 percent of adult African Americans in Mississippi can't vote because of a felony conviction," Mauer said.