Hed: Officials say fighting crime requires more than prisons

Hed: Officials say fighting crime requires more than prisons

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The construction of new prisons, which will open during this summer and early fall, is one part of the process of curtailing Mississippi’s growing crime problem.

But it should not be the only method of dealing with crime, state officials said recently.

“You can’t address crime in just one way,” said Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, explaining that to deal with crime law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, prisons and preventive measures are needed.

That was the message presented recently by members of the state Prison Emergency Construction and Management Board. The board, which is composed of Musgrove, Attorney General Mike Moore and Treasurer Marshall Bennett, was created by the state Legislature in 1994 to oversee the construction of prisons to meet a federal court mandate.

The state will spend about $100 million for the new prison beds and it will cost about $43 million per year for operational costs, based on figures compiled in 1994.

Members of the prison construction board admitted that building new prisons is an expensive way to fight crime.

“But they are needed,” Moore said.

Also needed in the fight against crime was the new Court of Appeals that began in January of 1995, the additional circuit judges added in 1994 and the additional prosecutors added this past legislative session.

Identifying at-risk kids

The next issue that needs to be addressed in the fight on crime, according to members of the prison construction board, is prevention. More efforts must be made to identify at-risk children at an early age to identify at-risk children and to work with those youths, Musgrove said.

“Prevention is very smart from a cost-effective standpoint,” Musgrove said. Prevention would include providing an adequate education for all children. For instance, Treasurer Bennett pointed out that public schools are woefully lacking in the number of guidance counselors.

But Moore said there is only so much the state can do. He said communities, including churches and civic clubs, must get more involved. These groups must provide mentors and conflict resolution instruction for the at-risk children. He said children need to be taught to solve problems through means other than violence.

While more needs to be done in the area of prevention, they stressed the additional prisons are needed.

Musgrove said the prisons are needed as a reminder to youthful offenders that they will be punished if they break the law.

A place to put lawbreakers

With the completion of most of the projects this summer, the state will have places to send the people who do break the law.

The new prisons will include a 1,000-bed private prison in Marshall County that is designed to open in June and another 1,000-bed facility in Leflore County that will open in August. Also this summer a 700-bed unit is supposed to open in Rankin County and in September a 1,216-bed prison is scheduled to open in Greene County.

By early fall, the state will have 5,800 beds more than it had before the special session in 1994. The special session was called by Gov. Kirk Fordice after a federal judge threatened to fine the state because of the more than 2,000 state inmates in county jails.

Mississippi currently has about 2,500 inmates in county jails sentenced to state prisons. With the additional prison beds opening this summer, that number should be reduced to around 500, Moore said.

People are being sentenced into the system at such a high rate that it will be difficult to completely reduce the number of state inmates in county jails, Moore said.

If most of the state inmates are removed from county jails, that would please Lee County Sheriff Harold Ray Presley.

As of Tuesday, Presley said he had 37 state inmates in his 86-bed jail. The state is paying him $20 per day for the inmates, but it costs him $29 per day to care for them.

If he continually keeps 30 state inmates in his jail, it will cost Lee County $98,550 per year. But Presley said he has had more than 60 state inmates in the jail at one time.

Presley pointed out the state just began paying $20 per day last year. Before then, the state paid $10 per day.

Click video to hear audio