As a man of peace, I was particularly troubled by my former opponent, Senator Tom Cotton’s tweet on April 6th, where he said “We have a major under-incarceration problem in America (a comment he has said before and is the reason I chose to run against him). And it’s only getting worse.” He was writing in response to a story about homicides increasing 33% last year in major American cities.
As a former prison chaplain (though that sort of ministry never truly ends) I can tell you the problem is not that we have an under-incarceration problem. The problem is that the criminal justice system is burdened by prosecuting people who have not harmed anyone.
It must be pointed out however that Senator Cotton expressed no interest in reducing crime, only in filling prisons. As a person who has spent much more time inside prisons than Senator Cotton, I can confidently say that sending a person who has committed no serious offense to prison does not solve any problems.
Last month Baltimore’s (Maryland) State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the city will no longer prosecute low level crimes. They started this policy last year in response to Covid rates in overcrowded jails, and found it so successful that they have made this permanent. They found that this policy resulted in a significant decrease in arrests while having no adverse effect on the crime rate. Offenses that will no longer be prosecuted include drug possession, and open container laws, among others. And though many other major cities are trending the other way, In Baltimore violent crime and property crime are both down over 20%.
I certainly support Little Rock examining policies like this. When we send a parent to prison, we increase the number of single-parent homes. A study by the Heritage foundation showed that single parent families are 70% more likely to have a child involved in crime than a two parent family. We can reduce future crime rates by reducing the current crime rate by making less criminals.
As an immediate fix, there is currently an effort to get recreational marijuana decriminalized. I saw Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) express support for a decriminalization bill in the legislature. Knowing Arkansas politics as I do, I suspect we’re going to have to decriminalize it as a ballot initiative. If Senator Cotton were truly interested in reducing crime, he would recognize the inevitable trend and support decriminalization of marijuana in Arkansas, rather than clinging on to an outdated tradition.
I would encourage Senator Cotton to show that he is tough on crime by wanting to reduce the number of victimless crime laws rather than increasing the number of people arrested. I know Senator Cotton opposed the 1619 project, but I would remind him of Abraham Lincoln’s great words: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” So long as we are using the power of the police force to arrest and incarcerate people who have not hurt anyone, we are divided. Let’s reduce the number of criminal offenses and reduce the number of criminals.