BOBBY HARRISON: Bryant’s ‘Nixon to China’ moment on criminal justice

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

In 1972, President Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit the communist-led People’s Republic of China.

The result of the landmark visit, the thawing of relations, led to the coinage of a political phrase “Nixon to China,” which has come to mean a politician with steadfast credentials on an issue taking a position seemingly contrary to the stance that led to those unassailable credentials.

Nixon was viewed as staunchly anti-communist. Some politicians might have been criticized for being soft on communism and on China for making such a trip.

But not Nixon, who had previously been a member of the U.S. House’s communist-bashing Un-American Activities Committee.

Gov. Phil Bryant might have an opportunity for “a Nixon to China” moment during the just-opened 2014 session of the Mississippi Legislature.

No, this is not about the first-term Republican governor going to China. But it is about his backing of proposed changes to the state’s criminal justice system.

Some might be labeled as soft on crime for endorsing some of the recommendations of a task force created by the 2013 Legislature to look for ways to curb growth in the state’s prison budget.

But Bryant, who studied and garnered degrees in criminal justice from Hinds Community College and the University of Southern Mississippi, and who later served as a deputy sheriff in Hinds County, has built political street cred on the question of whether he is tough on crime.

Bryant, who also served as state auditor, has near unassailable credentials on criminal justice issues. Others looking for ways to curb the budget for the Department of Corrections might face tough questions and criticism.

But the governor can say he hopes the result of the task force would be “Mississippi might be the worst state in the nation to commit a serious crime, but might be the best state to get a second chance” and be praised for his forethought where others making a similar statement might be assailed.

The governor and others, including the task force members, would quickly add that the recommendations are designed to do much more than just try to curb what has become a steep rise in the budget for the Department of Corrections.

And indeed, the recommendations do propose tougher sentences in some areas, such as for major drug dealers, and do propose restricting the ability of the Department of Corrections to release inmates early. But make no mistake about it, the overall intent of the proposals is to reduce the number of people being placed behind prison bars in the state.

To do that, Mississippi must reverse the trend of having one of the highest incarceration rates in the country at 688 people per 100,000, according to 2010 statistics. Only Louisiana has a higher rate.

To reduce that rate, the task force is recommending more of a focus of intense supervision for people on parole and probation, more use of house arrest and treatment opposed to incarceration for some drug offenders.

If some politicians proposed the same solutions, they would be vilified on talk radio and on certain blogs. Their political opponents would have a field day. Television advertising would be developed accusing the politician of being soft on crime.

But just as anti-communist Richard Nixon could open relations with China, former law enforcement officer Phil Bryant can work for alternatives other than locking up some inmates.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.