Criminal justice reform could strengthen Miss. economy, workforce, report finds
Currently, Mississippi has the highest imprisonment rate; The report states this is a key reason the state also has the nation's lowest labor force participation rate
By Thomas Moody-Jones
Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo
TUPELO, Miss. — A new report finds that Mississippi can drive economic growth by pursuing criminal justice reform.
Published by FWD.us, the organization advocates for efforts to reduce the number of people in prison and boost the economy.
"Mississippi's business and elected leaders know how vital growing our economy and developing our workforce is to communities across the state, and this new report makes clear that pursuing commonsense criminal justice reforms will do both," said Alesha Judkins, FWD.us Mississippi State Director.
Currently, Mississippi has the highest imprisonment rate in the country, and the report finds that this is a key reason that the state also has the nation's lowest labor force participation rate, with just 54% of the working-age population either looking for work or actively employed.
Through the direct removal of people from the workforce, and further hiring discrimination against persons with criminal convictions, the report finds that the criminal justice system discourages people from seeking jobs and reduces their earning potential.
Additionally, the report finds that the state's lengthy prison terms decrease the number of qualified workers in the labor force.
"Long sentences contribute to that lack (of qualified workers) by removing people from the labor force and creating barriers to reentering it when they return home," the report states.
An estimated 29% of Mississippi adults have a criminal conviction, 11% have a felony conviction, and 5% have spent time in prison. A criminal record can reduce the likelihood of hiring by almost 50%. Thus, the chances for hire decrease dramatically for a significant portion of Mississippi's population.
Despite national developments to improve the employment prospects of people who have spent time in jail, the report finds that Mississippi systematically excludes people with a criminal record from many positions.
"Many licensing boards deny people with criminal conviction records the opportunity to receive a professional license, and they are allowed to do so under the law, no matter how long ago the conviction occurred or how relevant the offense was to the line of work," the report states.
A person who's been in prison earns an expected 52% less compared to those that have not. As a result, the Mississippi economy misses out on an estimated $2.7 billion annually in lost earnings. Additionally, the report estimates that at least half that money would be spent on sales — and as a result, the state is losing an additional $95 million each year in tax revenue. Mississippi taxpayers pay an additional $400 million annually to run the prison system.
The report finds that the state has taken steps in the right direction. Mississippi removed a law that suspended the driver's licenses of people with unpaid court fines and fees in 2019. This increased access to opportunities outside the home.
Additionally, through Senate Bill 2795, a bipartisan measure passed in 2021, people in prison for certain serious offenses became eligible for parole consideration after serving 50% or 65% of their sentence, thereby increasing the chances a person could earn their parole.
Before the law was passed, just one-third of people in Mississippi prisons were able to earn their release through parole. After the passage of SB 2795, two-thirds of people in prison were able to work toward parole eligibility.
Still, the report notes that Mississippi should advance more common-sense criminal justice reform to improve public safety and the state's economy and business leaders can work to prioritize criminal justice reform as another way to strengthen the state workforce and economy.
(c)2023 the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo, Miss.)
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