COURTS: More certainty, options in sentencing

djournal_Court-NewsThis story is part of a package on justice overhaul.

Judges have been handing out longer prison sentences in Mississippi for the past decade. The 28 percent increase in prison sentence length can be attributed to judges seeing offenders serve less of the sentences they impose.

From 2002 to 2012, offenders in Mississippi served 22 percent less than their sentences. And though prisoners are getting out sooner, the increase in sentence length is leading to an almost 20 percent increase in the amount of time offenders are spending in prison – on the taxpayer’s dime.

The proposed changes would guarantee 25 percent of the sentence a judge imposes on a nonviolent offender is served. Violent offenders would serve 50 percent of their sentences. The aim is to give judges, victims and offenders a clearer picture of the sentence handed out in court.

Offenders would have to maintain good behavior and complete any assigned prerelease programs before being paroled. If not, they could serve up to the full length of their sentence.

Judges also would be able to use more of their own discretion in handing out sentences other than prison. Many stipulations, like prior felony convictions or certain drug convictions, currently prevent judges from sentencing offenders to proven alternative programs.

The task force recommendations would take many of those stipulations away, allowing judges like Circuit Judge Jim Pounds more freedom to enroll drug offenders in his drug court, which graduates an average of 35 drug-free participants each year.

JB Clark