Bipartisanship on display at IHL conference

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by: Kate Royals 

Researchers and lawmakers presented their findings on everything from the state’s critical teacher shortage to its criminal justice system at the University Research Center’s conference on Thursday.

The highlight was the improbable political duo Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, and Rep. Kabir Karriem, D-Columbus, who discussed their views on perhaps the only issue they agree on: the need for further criminal justice reform in the state.

Mississippi lawmakers in 2014 passed legislation redirecting offenders with drug and alcohol dependence to drug courts and intensive supervision instead of prison. Many attribute the state’s drop in its inmate population, which decreased from around 22,000 to 18,000 today, to the law.

“That’s meaningful motion of 4,000 people, but what are those 4,000 people doing now?” Bomgar asked. “Nobody’s really sure.”

Bomgar and Karriem cited statistics that while 18,000 may seem like a relatively small number, nearly 500,000 Mississippians have criminal records. That can have a major impact on their ability to get a job and therefore on the state’s economy, they said.

Bomgar, who describes himself as conservative and a Christian, said part of the Republican party’s problem when it comes to this issue is what he referred to as the “’pull yourself up by your bootstraps, if you don’t work you’re lazy’ mentality.”

“There are elements of personal responsibility there, but it’s also possible to create government systems that hurt people,” he said.

Both Bomgar and Karriem touched on the need for the state to reconsider jailing people for some nonviolent offenses and making those who have been incarcerated more employable when they are released.

“Right now, you have to pay your fees and fines before you can get your driver’s license back (after being incarcerated), but if you have no transportation, how are you going to get to work to pay those fees and fines?” Bomgar asked, calling the current system “upside down” and “backwards.”

Read more at Mississippi Today.