For all the political free shots taken at Mississippi lawmakers by critics with a generic dislike of state government, one might think its “March Madness” all 12 months of the year.
But in terms of common sense criminal justice reforms designed to reduce the staggering and ever-escalating costs of Mississippi’s criminal justice system, few legislatures have taken on the real world issues of crime and punishment in a more responsible and bipartisan manner than has the 2014 session.
Recommendations for House Bill 585 came from recommendations in the bill came from the state’s bipartisan Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force, made up of judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, defense attorneys, county officials and others.
Supporters say the legislation could make the state’s criminal justice system more efficient and cut state corrections costs by $266 million over 10 years. The bill mandates that anyone convicted of a violent offense would be required to serve at least 50 percent of a sentence, and anyone convicted of a nonviolent offense would have to serve at least 25 percent. The bill would give judges more flexibility to give alternative sentences, such as ordering treatment for drug users.
Bill supporter Gov. Phil Bryant said: “This bill ensures that violent criminals are held accountable for their crimes, and it provides a second chance to veterans and other Mississippians who have made mistakes and want to take steps to get their lives back on track.”
But opponents of portions of the bill in Bryant’s home Rankin County are complaining about a provision in the law that changes the threshold on felony property theft from the present $500 to a higher $1,000 threshold. Those opponents say that under the change, fewer criminals will be sent to Parchman.
If Mississippi is to make any real progress in cutting the state’s soaring prison expenses, that’s exactly the point.
Last year, a Pew Charitable Trusts study documented what most state legislators already knew from wrestling the state's budget - that Mississippi's prison population is soaring and so is the cost of operating the state's prison system.
Here's a succinct description of the problem from the 2013 Pew study: “Mississippi’s prison population has grown by 17 percent in the last decade and 134 percent in the past 20 years. The comparable figures for Mississippi’s resident population are 4 and 14 percent, respectively.
“That is, prison growth in Mississippi was more than four times and almost nine times faster than resident population growth, for the respective periods. The state now houses more than 22,600 prisoners and has the second-highest imprisonment rate in the country, trailing Louisiana.
“Mississippi taxpayers spend $339 million annually on corrections, up from $276 million in 2003. The vast majority - 93 percent - pays for prisons, while the remainder funds probation, parole, and house arrest.”
What brought about that growth in Mississippi’s prison population at a time of national prison population decline?
Mississippi joined a host of states around the country in adopting so-called “truth-in-sentencing” or mandatory-minimum laws in 1995. The laws require all inmates sentenced to felony time in the state penitentiary system - violent and non-violent offenders alike - after July 1, 1995, to serve 85 percent of their term before they could even be considered for parole.
The rationale was that longer, tougher prison sentences would be a deterrent to crime, but there were other factors pushing mandatory minimums legislation through the Legislature. Adoption of the laws in 1995 also qualified the state for federal funding under a federal crime bill.
But the unintended consequences of the law were alarming. Mississippi’s prison population soared from 12,292 at the end of the 1995 fiscal year to 31,031 at the end of the 2005 fiscal year.
State lawmakers over the last decade have tweaked the state's “good time” policies for non-violent offenders and reinstated parole eligibility for inmates convicted of non-violent crimes. While those policies changes helped, it hasn’t been enough.
With the costs of crime and punishment soaring and the state crunched to finance education at all levels, highways and bridges, mental health and other key needs, there’s some truth to the old saw that Mississippi “needs to decide who we’re mad at and who we are afraid of” when it comes to making public policy for crime and punishment.
Prisons should be primarily for those of whom we are afraid. Alternatives like house arrest, ankle bracelets and other emerging technologies that put the swelling taxpayer burden of housing and feeding non-violent offenders back on the offenders should be for those with whom society is angry.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.