Rep. Kabir Karriem

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Researchers and lawmakers presented their findings on everything from the state’s critical teacher shortage to its criminal justice system at the University Research Center’s conference on Thursday.

The highlight was the improbable political duo Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, and Rep. Kabir Karriem, D-Columbus, who discussed their views on perhaps the only issue they agree on: the need for further criminal justice reform in the state.

Mississippi lawmakers in 2014 passed legislation redirecting offenders with drug and alcohol dependence to drug courts and intensive supervision instead of prison. Many attribute the state’s drop in its inmate population, which decreased from around 22,000 to 18,000 today, to the law.

“That’s meaningful motion of 4,000 people, but what are those 4,000 people doing now?” Bomgar asked. “Nobody’s really sure.”

Bomgar and Karriem cited statistics that while 18,000 may seem like a relatively small number, nearly 500,000 Mississippians have criminal records. That can have a major impact on their ability to get a job and therefore on the state’s economy, they said.

Bomgar, who describes himself as conservative and a Christian, said part of the Republican party’s problem when it comes to this issue is what he referred to as the “’pull yourself up by your bootstraps, if you don’t work you’re lazy’ mentality.”

“There are elements of personal responsibility there, but it’s also possible to create government systems that hurt people,” he said.

Both Bomgar and Karriem touched on the need for the state to reconsider jailing people for some nonviolent offenses and making those who have been incarcerated more employable when they are released.

“Right now, you have to pay your fees and fines before you can get your driver’s license back (after being incarcerated), but if you have no transportation, how are you going to get to work to pay those fees and fines?” Bomgar asked, calling the current system “upside down” and “backwards.”

Karriem referred to legislation passed in Georgia as an example of what Mississippi could replicate. The legislation bans the box on applications for state government jobs that asks about potential employees’ criminal background. It also removes the lifetime ban on food stamp eligibility after a felony drug conviction after the offender completes their sentence and probation.

When asked whether they would present legislation similar to Georgia’s in the 2017 session, Karriem said he needs to do more research on the specifics. Both have said, however, the goal is to come up with the particulars by the end of the year to be ready for the 2017 session.

Both talked about the need for certain offenders’ records to be expunged so they don’t continue their lives “wearing the scarlet letter F (felon),” said Karriem, who organizes expungement clinics in his district.

Academics from Mississippi State University presented their findings that race, demographic location and local funding were the most likely predictors of whether a school district will be deemed a critical shortage area. Critical shortage areas, in a district with 60 or more teaching positions, are those that have 10 percent or more of its teaching staff not properly licensed for the subject they are teaching.

Other topics at the conference included:

  • Estimation of the costs of cigarette smoking to the state
  • Transforming lives through health insurance outreach and enrollment
  • Sex education legislation’s impact in Mississippi
  • Health insurance influence on obesity rates

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.