Crime spike not due to prison reforms

Suggestions that the recent spike in homicides is due to recent statewide criminal justice reforms are not supported by evidence. The same is true for violent crimes overall.

  • Reductions in incarceration were spurred by legislative reforms in 2014 and 2021, neither of which align with the spike in homicides that started in 2020.
  • The two southeastern states with the highest increase in homicide over the past decade did not pass reforms similar to Mississippi’s.
  • All states experienced homicide spikes in 2020, including those that implemented justice reforms and those that did not.
  • While these reforms were statewide, increases in homicides have been heavily concentrated in the City of Jackson, which has 6 percent of the state’s population but at least 25 percent – and possibly as high as 52 percent, according to FBI estimates – of the state’s homicides. If criminal justice reforms were a driver of violent crime rates, the impact would be more widespread.
  • The academic literature supports the idea that evidence-based policies which decrease incarceration like those implemented in Mississippi do not lead to higher crime rates. In fact – counterintuitively – they almost always lead to lower crime rates.

There are several elements that are necessary to safely and responsibly reduce Mississippi’s incarceration rate – and the cost to taxpayers that accompanies unnecessary incarceration.

First is to prevent crime before it occurs. Ideally, this would start with a spiritual foundation that distinguishes right from wrong and serves to help people, not harm them. But from a public policy standpoint, here are ways to prevent crime:

  • Enable a strong economy with adequate job or entrepreneurial opportunities to provide sufficient income for families. This includes, among other things, removing the many regulatory barriers to obtaining occupational licenses, especially where a criminal record – no matter how long ago the crime occurred or what the crime was – can automatically preclude a person’s pursuit of a trade or profession.
  • Properly fund law enforcement and ensure that the money is used to attract, pay well, and properly train officers, so that there will be a sufficient number of them to implement community-based policing approaches that have been shown to build trust and to deter crime.
  • Implement “focused deterrence,” in which the relatively few people who commit most crimes are identified with the help of neighborhood residents, they are warned that they are being watched, and they are quickly apprehended if they ignore the warnings. This has proved effective in the few major cities where crime has fallen over the past few years.
  • Work with churches and other community organizations to address underlying issues, such as addiction, mental illness, and homelessness. This is not to suggest that these conditions excuse criminal behavior nor that all people who experience these conditions will commit crimes; it is an acknowledgment that these conditions often accompany criminal behavior, and that our jails and prisons are ill-equipped to treat them, which means the behavior will continue if an alternative is not pursued.
  • Equip inmates for their ultimate release. Fully 95 percent of people in prison will be released at some point. Most people who commit another crime after release from prison do so within the first six months, often because they return to the same situation they left, with no new job skills to obtain and keep a job and no new life skills to choose a different lifestyle.
  • Prioritize law enforcement time on solving violent crime. According to one analysis, police in 10 major cities in the U.S. spend less than five percent of their time, on average, on violent crime.
  • Prioritize prosecutors’ time on getting violent criminals off the street. An indication of how prosecutors spend time in Mississippi is the fact that 73 percent of our prison admissions in 2021 were for drug and other non-violent crimes.

In a forthcoming report from Empower Mississippi, we will present more analysis and recommendations on this topic, based in evidence of what works and not in emotional reactions to the horror of violent crime – emotions that are completely understandable and valid, but are not always a foundation of effective policies to prevent future crimes.

Focusing limited resources on the most serious offenses and targeting high crime areas is a substantially better long-term strategy for public safety than reverting to a “lock everyone up and throw away the key” mentality that is both costly to taxpayers and ineffective in reducing crime.