Why ‘most corrupt’ title may not fit Mississippi

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Determining America’s most corrupt state is not unlike trying to ascertain history’s most prolific forger: In the latter, the counterfeiter too skilled to be caught remains forever unknown, while in the former, the most dishonest state is one that has tolerated and even declined to prosecute dishonest behavior.

That’s not the argument that Mississippi officials are putting forth to dispute a recent study that ranks the Magnolia State as the most corrupt in the US, but it would make sense.

Instead, Mississippi officials are arguing that the study by two public policy researchers – Cheol Liu of the City University of Hong Kong and John L. Mikesell of Indiana University – fails to take into account the state’s recent anti-corruption efforts.

The pair looked the rate at which public employees in each of the 50 US states had been convicted on federal corruption charges from 1976 to 2008 to determine which state was the most corrupt in the union, according to Fortune magazine.

They concluded that Mississippi had the highest ratio of public workers who were censured for misuse of public funds and other charges. The researchers looked at the hard numbers – federal convictions – to control for differences in spending on law enforcement and the rigor of state corruption laws, according to Fortune.

But Mississippi State Auditor Stacey Pickering argued in an interview with Fortune that the study relied on old data and didn’t take into account the state’s anti-corruption efforts.

Pickering contended that many Mississippi laws have changed since he took office in 2008, with the state legislature putting an investigative arm into the state auditors office.

What makes just as much sense, however, is the idea that truly corrupt states – think Nigeria, Liberia or Russia – simply decline to prosecute corruption.

It’s not unlike the purported actions of law enforcement in bad areas of certain metropolises, which, often at the request of politicians, underreport crime in order to either create a false sense of security or to give the impression that crime is declining.

Put another way, if every county in your state but one chooses to ignore speeding laws, is it fair to label the one that enforces the law – provided it does so justly and impartially – a speed trap?

Those caught speeding may not be happy, but that doesn’t mean the county following the rules should be singled out as the problem.

Does Mississippi have challenges? Yes. Is it the only one? No. Is it the worst offender? Probably not.

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