State should consider additional Corrections reforms
During his two terms as governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour usually couched his public ruminations over proposals to reform Mississippi’s prison system and past “get tough on crime” mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines by observing: “Mississippi needs to decade who we’re afraid of and who we’re just mad at.”
Derek Cohen, a criminologist with the conservative organization Right on Crime, honed an even sharper take on that sentiment while talking about ways to reduce the nation’s high rate of incarceration and the incredibly high costs of maintaining that many people in the nation’s prisons
Cohen said: “Prison is for people we’re scared of, not the people we’re mad at. In other words, prison is for the people that need to be incapacitated while they receive rehabilitation or while they receive their punishment.”
What prison shouldn’t be is an albatross around the necks of the taxpayers who are forced by archaic laws that don’t consider modern technologies to stack and warehouse prisoner in a manner that punishes taxpayers to a greater degree than prisoners.
Mississippi has made some important strides in bringing common sense and fiscal prudence to the operation of the state’s corrections function in recent years — and that despite a bribery and corruption scandal in the Mississippi Department of Corrections that still languishes in the federal courts.
After seeing aggressive mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and a general “get tough on crime” attitude dictate state corrections policy for a long time, the state’s prison population swelled to the point that corrections became a crippling expense in state government that vexed state lawmakers.
In 2014, Gov. Phil Bryant signed prison sentence reform legislation that supporters claimed could save Mississippi some $266 million over the next decade. House Bill 585 required those convicted of violent offenses to serve at least 50 percent of their sentences, while those convicted of nonviolent offenses would serve at least 25 percent before being eligible for parole.
In short, the state’s rising prison population finally put state government in the mode of reducing the number of inmates housed in the custody of MDOC. From the perspective of an agency struggling with budget issues after the revelation of the stunning public corruption conducted by former MDOC commissioner Chris Epps, Mississippi joined other states in commencing a downsizing driven primarily by budgetary concerns. Leading up to the 2014 reforms, Mississippi was simply warehousing too many non-violent offenders for unreasonable periods of time and the taxpayers were getting hammered over the rising costs.
What impact did those “truth-in-sentencing” laws have? 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. The 2014 reforms dropped the state’s prison population down to less than 19,000. That’s good public policy that doesn’t sacrifice public safety.
According to the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER), MDOC’s cost per inmate day in the system in Fiscal Year 2016 was $49.79 per day. Of that, $24.32 a day went to pay the personnel needed to house the prisoners, $10.30 per days went to medical expenses, and $3.22 a day went to feed each inmate. Utility costs were $2.18 per inmate a day.
Bryant recently vetoed House Bill 1033 — which provided that an offender’s failure to pay fines or fees because of indigence could not be grounds for incarceration — over a typo that authors of the bill dismissed as relatively insignificant but that Bryant argued gave habitual offenders unintended benefits. Surely, lawmakers will fast-track a correction to that otherwise very progressive and fiscally wise legislation.
Other nearby states — including Georgia and Louisiana — are looking at ways to reduce the amount of time offenders spend on probation or parole after they have served their prison sentences as a means of reducing the cost of corrections. Mississippi currently has just 33,000 offenders on parole or probation.
Sounds like a good idea to me.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.