New approach pitched to tackle state’s mass incarceration problem

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Ron Blaylock

Audience members discuss remedies to mass incarceration with Dr. Chris Surprenant.

Mississippi has the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the country, and two “liberty-minded” organizations convened in Jackson Tuesday night to explore new strategies to reduce the high prison population.

In a presentation about mass incarceration, University of New Orleans professor Dr. Chris Surprenant offered ideas that included putting only violent offenders in prison, shortening initial sentences, and removing financial incentives that are tied with the incarceration rate.

The University of New Orleans

                 Dr. Chris Surprenant

America’s Future Foundation, a network made up largely of young libertarians, and the Center for the Study of Liberty, which organizes events on “free thinking” around the country, co-hosted the event at Hal & Mal’s Restaurant in Jackson.

“I think that we should look at relatively short initial sentences for all crimes,” Surprenant said. “All of the data on prison sentences suggests anything over five years does not deter people any longer than five year sentences do.

“If we believe that at some point someone who committed a crime at 16, 17, 18, is no longer of the state of mind or in the position where they’re going to commit a crime, should we keep them in prison?”

Currently, there are 2.2 million Americans in federal, state and local prisons, which is about seven percent of the population; in Mississippi, 609 of every 100,000 people are imprisoned, and about 2 percent of the population are in the criminal justice system (including those on parole or probation), according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The professor also suggested expanding tort law and finding other punishments, such as expanding probation, for non-violent offenders would reduce the incarceration rate.

Surprenant addressed arguments made in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, specifically the idea that race is the main reason behind the mass incarceration.

“I would love it to be the case that the reason why we have so many people in jail is because we have a lot of racist laws, a lot of racist cops and a lot of racist judges, and there are those,” he said. “But if you woke up tomorrow, and we were all a shade of tan and we eliminated race overnight, we would still have the incarceration problem that we have now because there are significant financial incentives to keep people in prison and to fine them.”

He argued that state and local prisons have an incentive to imprison more people because inmates are counted towards the population and therefore lead to more federal funding.

Surprenant, who teaches philosophy at the University of New Orleans, is the editor of Rethinking Punishment in the Era of Mass Incarceration.