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This week saw Haley Barbour in hot water over pardons he granted to some Mississippi prison inmates.  Haley Barbour left the Mississippi's governor's office on Jan. 10, 2012, after Mississippi's term limits law prevent Barbour from seeking another term.  As one of his final acts, he granted full pardons or early release to some 200 Mississippi inmates.

This action has drawn a strongly critical reaction from the public, including a request by the state Attorney General to a Mississppi judge to block some of the releases.  The pardons threaten to tarnish the favorable impression many conservatives have of Barbour.  A survey by Public policy Polling in Nov. found that Barbour enjoyed a 60% approval rating among Mississippi voters.

Haley Barbour was always a “tough on crime” politician, who constantly advocated putting more people in prisons for longer periods of time.  But strangely, no longer constrained by the need to run for office, Barbour is free to express some different thoughts on prisons and prisoners.  And to release 200 people from Mississippi prisons.  

Indeed, all politicians these days run as “tough on crime”.  To be anything else is a political kiss of death.  George HW Bush used the Willie Horton issue to paint his opponent Micheal Dukakis as “soft on crime”.  Now, no male office-seeker wants to appear “soft” on anything – office seekers who are male need to be “hard on” all the issues, all the time.  No exceptions.

But all politicians have sold themselves as “tough on crime” to get themselves elected.  In order to get in office, and then stay in office, politicians have needed to put people in prison.  And as time as gone on and each candidate seeks to outdo their opponents, more and more Americans have gone to prison.  Indeed, the US currently  incarcerates 2.3 million people.  Today, there are more Americans under “correctional supervision” (in prison, on parole, on probation) than were maintained in the Gulag Archipelago under Joseph Stalin.  And that number is increasing.  In 1980, approximately 220 Americans per hundred thousand were incarcerated; today the figure is 730 per hundred thousand.  (There is a great article published by The New Yorker that I recommend to anyone wanting to read more – here: http://www.newyorker.com/...)

The “land of the free” has become The United States of Incarceration. The miracle of mass incarceration has been accomplished in a variety of ways, all advocated by politicians and approved by voters at the ballot box.  There are the “Rockefeller drug laws” providing for longer sentences for minor crimes.  There are the “three strikes you're out” laws, making more permanent residents of the American gulag.  And there are mandatory sentencing guidelines that prevent judges from exercising discretion for first-time, youthful, or non-violent offenders.  

In two thirds of American states, judges gain office by elections, as do the majority of prosecuting attorneys around the country.  These office-holders have a powerful personal financial incentive to send as many people as possible to prison.  When was the last time you saw a judge or DA running on the slogan of “I threw out more indictments than my opponent”?

Add to this mix a for-profit prison industry, in which economic growth depends on having more people in prison for longer periods of time, and we are almost guaranteed a growing prison population.  Of course, part of the money the state pays to the prison industry goes to lobbying the state legislators for more contracts and further toughening the criminal code.  It's a win-win situation for the politicians who want to tell the public how tough there are on crime anyways.

However, there are some problems with this approach.  First off, judging a person by how many people they have or will put in prison may result in a poor choice for public office.  Secondly, it costs a great deal of tax-payer money to put and keep people in prisons.  While the amount varies from state to state, today it roughly costs $35,000-40,000 to keep one inmate in prison for one year.  The estimate is that the US spends $60 billion every year on imprisonment.  And that $60 billion is money that is not available to repair roads, hire teachers, or keep a library open.

So now it is now turning out that we can't pay for all the people the politicians need to put in jail in order to get or stay in office.  

But fortunately for Mississippi, Haley Barbour no longer needs to impress voters with how tough he is, has seen the light and released Mississippi tax-payers from the obligation to pay for the continued imprisonment of those 200 former inmates.  

This is an enlightened view from Gov. Barbour, and the folks in Mississippi should be thanking him.

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