Justice overhaul: Proposals aim to curb incarceration trend

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Michael Taylor has been in the Lee County Adult Jail since Dec. 16 because of a technical parole violation. If a comprehensive justice reform is passed by the Mississippi legislature, parolees stuck in the system, like Taylor, will move through more efficiently, saving taxpayers money.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Michael Taylor has been in the Lee County Adult Jail since Dec. 16 because of a technical parole violation. If a comprehensive justice reform is passed by the Mississippi legislature, parolees stuck in the system, like Taylor, will move through more efficiently, saving taxpayers money.

By JB Clark

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Michael Taylor has been in the Lee County Adult Jail since Dec. 16, waiting to find out if the Mississippi Parole Board will revoke or reinstate his parole.

Taylor was arrested on a third DUI and because of his parole status with the Mississippi Department of Corrections, a “hold” was placed on him, preventing him from bonding out and going back to work.

The hold will remain until he can go before the parole board, but until then, he is waiting in jail with no idea of when that will be, running up a bill for the Lee County taxpayer.

A proposed change in the way prison transfers and parole revocation hearings are processed is one of a series of recommendations from a task force created by the 2013 Legislature to find ways to improve the criminal justice system. It would help bring more certainty to people like Taylor who are stuck in the system with nowhere to go, swelling jail populations and costing the taxpayers.

Many of the 19 recommendations aim to help relieve county jail facilities like the Lee County Adult Jail, where inmates with MDOC “holds” are stuck for months at a time.

The task force has recommended a 21-day time limit be placed on the length of time a parole or probation violator can sit in a county jail before being seen by the parole board.

This and other recommendations – including granting more leeway to judges on sentences that involve alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders – are designed to curb the growth in Mississippi’s prison population, which is well ahead of national trends. That in turn would begin to get prison costs under control, backers of the task force’s recommendations say.

At the same time, the panel’s proposals would ensure that violent criminals serve a guaranteed portion of their sentences. In recent years, the Legislature – responding to inmate growth spurred by a law requiring inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentence – has given the Department of Corrections more authority to reduce sentences based on good behavior. This has led judges and prosecutors to complain that their decisions aren’t being carried out.

The recommendations have the support of Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, giving them a good chance of passage in the 2014 legislative session.

Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, recently introduced House Bill 585, which would turn the 19 recommendations into law. He said the bill has a lot of support and expects to take it up in the Judiciary B committee Thursday.

The bipartisan support, he said, is due to the scope of the law.

“There is a lot of compromise going on,” he said. “Nobody got exactly what they want but that’s a good sign it’s a good piece of legislation.”

Better preparation

Taylor, the Lee County inmate, said having a date set for his parole hearing or a system where he could estimate his release or revocation would help him prepare for the outside world.

“Sure, I would be able to plan better,” he said. “I would know when I am getting out and could set (work) up ahead of time. Not knowing when you’ll get out or go before the board leads to parole violations. That’s something I’ve seen here and encountered myself. It leads to more crime.”

While on parole, Taylor was working as an independent contractor to pay restitution for his original felony crime – grand larceny – and checking in with his parole officer twice each month to take a drug/alcohol test.

Now, instead of paying back for his crime while waiting on the court’s decision for his latest charge, he is stuck in the system.

Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said inmates with MDOC holds, namely those who have violated parole, are the biggest headache he has.

Those on MDOC parole or probation are prevented from bonding out on the new charges. The state doesn’t pay for those inmates until their parole has been revoked and the inmate can’t be released until they are reinstated or revoked and transferred to a state facility.

“The problem we have is those individuals have sat in here for six, seven, eight months at a time,” Johnson said. “It’s not fair to us to have the expense and liability drag on – nor is it fair to the parolee.”

It is not uncommon for Johnson to have 35-50 inmates in his jail with MDOC holds preventing them from bonding out.

The 21-day maximum before a parole board hearing recommended by the task force would provide a light at the end of the tunnel for jail administrators and parolees alike, Johnson said.

“That will give me some relief on certain prisoners and the time limit will provide a light at the end of the tunnel,” Johnson said.

The recommendations also aim to provide revocation centers where offenders can serve shorter stints in incarceration, while going through drug treatment or educational re-entry programs, instead of going back to the general population in a state prison.

The reforms also would save money by reducing the number of occupied jail and prison beds.

To help prevent offenders from violating their parole, all parole-eligible inmates would be given a list of programs, like GED courses or alcohol and drug treatment, they must complete while incarcerated to be paroled.

Taylor was put into an alcohol and drug program while incarcerated but was granted parole before completion.

Costly increase

Overcrowding and the growing cost of housing prisoners is another of many problems facing Mississippi’s justice system and a major reason a task force was formed to help recommend new state laws that would streamline the system and save taxpayers money.

Mississippi’s prison population grew 307 percent in the past three decades, almost 11 times faster than the state’s resident population, according to a PEW study.

Mississippi currently has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country with more than 22,600 inmates currently incarcerated and 2.3 percent of the population in the justice system. And while the per-inmate cost is low – $15,151.15 per inmate per year compared with the national average of $23,300 – the MDOC budget last year was $339 million, up $63 million from 2003.

The bipartisan task force was made up of legislators, judges, attorneys, policy reform advocates, victims and families of offenders, and its recommendations represent extensive research and compromise.

If adopted in full, the recommendations are projected to save the state from funding between 3,074 and 3,821 prison beds over the next decade and avert $266 million in otherwise necessary spending that would accompany projected prison growth.

Establishing minimums

The first two recommendations in the task force report will require all offenders serve a minimum sentence before being parole-eligible and will take away the ability of MDOC to place offenders on early release house arrest.

“Numbers one and two are going to account for over 4,000 beds,” MDOC Commissioner Christopher Epps said of the compromise. “Now we’re also going to reduce the amount of imprisonment for low-level drug possession,” he said as he continued through the recommendations. “I lost a lot of beds on one and two but I’m gaining a few back here.”

One quarter of nonviolent offenders are serving less than 25 percent of their sentence and 43 percent of violent offenders served less than half of their sentence in 2012, the task force reported.

Between 2002 and 2012, prison sentence lengths went up 28 percent while the percent of each sentence the offender actually served in prison dropped 22 percent. The uncertainty in sentencing led to a 17 percent increase in the amount of time inmates were actually spending in prison.

“I know we’ve been asking for some clarity and would like (to know) what the sentences mean,” said 1st District Circuit Court Judge Jim Pounds. “I don’t like it when I sentence someone and I don’t know for sure. Unless it’s a day-for-day crime, I have no clue how long they’ll serve on a 20-year sentence.”

Epps said he hopes enforcing true minimums on court-ordered sentences will result in a reduction of sentence length from judges.

“We can provide public safety at a lower cost by deciding who we’re mad at and who we’re afraid of,” Epps said.

Judges also would be given more discretion in alternative sentences. The task force has recommended many of the stipulations keeping drug offenders or repeat offenders from enrolling in beneficial and often recidivism-reducing alternative programs be removed.

“I think it’s getting so expensive on taxpayers that we do need some alternatives to incarceration at the judge’s discretion,” Pounds said.

Moments before his interview for this story, Pounds had to tell a drug offender he couldn’t participate in drug court because of a prior burglary conviction.

Upward trend

If nothing is done about the way sentences are imposed and offenders are treated in Mississippi, prison populations are expected to continue to rise by 2,000 to 4,000 inmates each decade.

One glaring problem in the Mississippi justice system is the allocation of funding. Mississippi spends 93 percent of the correctional budget on prisons and 7 percent on community supervision. That is compared to a correctional population that is 36 percent prisoners and 64 percent community supervision.

The task force recommended the money diverted from prison cost be reinvested into programs that will prevent further recidivism and prison population increases, like halfway houses, drug treatment and re-entry programs.

Mississippi drug court funding was cut by 42 percent for the 2014 fiscal year, something the task force says needs to be remedied.

County jails are supposed to be reimbursed by MDOC, according to state law, but the law says the reimbursement happens only when funds are available. The task force recommends striking the contingency to help ease the burden on local jails.

“This is going to flat-line the corrections population,” Epps said. “Instead of us growing each year we’ll be down around 22,000 (inmates). It’s going to save us 2,000 prison beds and $260 million.”

Epps said the recommended system won’t work at all, however, if the Legislature introduces the system piecemeal.

“If they say, ‘We want one and not the other,’ we might as well throw the whole thing in the garbage,” he said. “We’ve can’t have true minimums without the revocation unit. We spent seven months on this and it has to be a complete package.”

jb.clark@journalinc.com