Not everyone in jail deserves to be there

Published 6:47 pm Friday, February 19, 2021

There is increasing political movement toward introducing less punishment and more rehabilitation into the Mississippi criminal justice system.

In Deuteronomy 25:2 God says: “If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have him flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, but the judge must not impose more than 40 lashes. If the guilty party is flogged more than that, your fellow Israelite will be degraded in your eyes.”

We’ve come a long way from flogging, thank goodness, but there are two key concepts here: 1) The punishment must be proportionate to the crime, and 2) The punishment must not be excessive or degrading.

Back in the days of Moses, there was a reason for not making criminal punishment degrading: The Israelites had much work to do in populating and developing their nation in the promised land. God needed all hands on deck to make way for the Savior’s coming. Lesser crimes should be punished, but not to the extent that Israelites were degraded, alienated and outcast from the tribe. That was counterproductive to God’s plan.

As my grandfather editor Oliver Emmerich said many times, “Mississippi’s too poor and underdeveloped to leave anyone behind. Everyone should be treated with respect and dignity.”
There is a growing sense that we have created a permanent criminal underclass that is degraded, alienated and outcast from our society and economy. This is hurting our economy, undermining development and being disobedient to God.

As if that’s not enough, we only have to look at neighboring Alabama where the federal government is forcing Alabama to spend hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading their prisons and criminal justice system. If we don’t do it voluntarily, the feds will force us to.

No doubt there are evil people who need to be behind bars. These are calculating, competent sociopaths who know what they are doing is wrong, but don’t care because it suits their selfish needs.

But a huge number of people enmeshed in our criminal justice system are not evil. They are simply organizationally challenged or mentally ill. Criminalizing these people makes no sense.

Here’s what I mean: Take a person who struggles just to get through the day because they were born with fewer gifts than many of us. They may have ADHD. They may be battling poverty. They may live in a dysfunctional family situation. The list is endless.

Then they get a parking ticket in the mail. They intend to pay it but forget. Then they get another fine for not paying. Eventually they get a court summons. But they have no transportation to the court or get scared and intimidated by the process. Now a warrant goes out for their arrest. A year goes by, they are pulled over for speeding and hauled off to jail. They have no money for bail. They then become stuck in the criminal justice system with no way out.

Remember, these are people and families barely hanging on. Now a bread earner is in jail. The family has no income. Disaster strikes. More stress. More dysfunction. The repercussions magnify leading to more crime, more dysfunction, more imprisonment. And it all started with an unpaid parking ticket.

As a reporter, I have spent hours upon hours in courtrooms listening to judges deal with cases like these. It is real. Indeed, the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) admits that about a third of its prisoners suffer from some form of mental illness.
Many readers may be parents. As parents, you know that children vary widely in their social and coping skills.

Wyatt Emmerich is president of Emmerich Publications and publisher of the Northside Sun.