Legislative odd couple form bond

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by: Jimmie Gates, The Clarion-Ledger

Joel Bomgar is a first-term Republican legislator from Madison who touts conservative family values. Kabir Karriem is a first-term Democratic legislator from Columbus who is viewed as liberal on most issues.

With partisan politics at a fever pitch this year on several legislative issues, it would seem the two wouldn’t have anything in common, but they have formed an unlikely bond over the need to reform the criminal justice system and end mass incarceration.

Bomgar and Karriem may be the political odd couple of the 122-member Mississippi House of Representatives.

Karriem, a businessman and former Columbus city councilman, said he believes in a second chance, especially for nonviolent offenders.

“Other than education, which is my No. 1 priority, criminal justice reform, I think is No. 2,” said Bomgar, also a businessman.

Both Bomgar and Karriem attended a news conference at the state Capitol organized by the Clergy for Prison Reform — an organization of concerned pastors across Mississippi. Bomgar advocates restitution and restoration over mass incarceration. He said the victim often gets left out of the equation and is never made whole.

Bomgar said he is excited about working with Karriem. Karriem sits in front of him in the House chamber and Bomgar noticed their voting patterns were similar in regards to criminal justice reform.

“I want to look at all aspects of it,” Bomgar said. “Is there a better way? Do they need to go to jail or prison? Historically, we have treated it like a hammer. We incarcerate everyone.

“Is incarceration the right tool? How many times do we swing the hammer?” he asked. “We should be asking if the hammer is the right tool. We should get away from incarceration in situations where it is not the right tool. Very often often incarceration isn’t rehabilitative.”

Bomgar said offenders frequently are coming out of prison worse than when they went into the correctional system, noting that there are about 480,000 people in Mississippi with criminal records.

He said it’s difficult to get a job or a better job with a criminal record.

Read more at The Clarion-Ledger.