By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Unless changes are made, Mississippi’s prison budget, which already is more than $335 million per year, is expected to grow in the next decade an additional $266 million.
And the state, which already has the second highest incarceration rate in the country at 688 people per 100,000, according to 2010 figures, will lock up an additional 2,000 people.
Mississippi currently houses 22,600 people in prison, an increase of 124 percent in the last 20 years and 17 percent in last decade.
Gov. Phil Bryant and legislative leaders have pledged to deal with the criminal justice system in general and the high incarceration rate in particular during the 2014 session, which begins Tuesday.
The governor and legislative leaders have embraced a set of recommendations developed by a task force created by the 2013 Legislature. The task force, consisting of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, legislators and others interested in the criminal justice system, has submitted a broad spectrum of recommendations, including alternatives such as house arrest, more supervision and lighter sentences for some nonviolent offenders and tougher sentences for those convicted of more serious offenses.
The task force, which developed the recommendations, along with research aid from the national Pew Charitable Trust, believes the net result of its proposals if adopted in whole by the Legislature will be a stabilizing of the state’s prison population over a period of time.
Bryant puts it this way: “I would think Mississippi might be the worst state in nation to commit a serious crime, but might be the best state to get a second chance.”
The state’s Corrections budget began skyrocketing in the mid 1990s when the Legislature, with the blessing of then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, adopted truth in sentencing guidelines, essentially requiring all inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole.
In recent years, legislators, recognizing the costs of the truth in sentencing law but fearing to be perceived as soft on crime if they overturned it, have made changes around the edges, giving the Department of Corrections authority to release inmates early in certain situations. The result has upset judges and prosecutors, who believe the Department of Corrections was usurping their authority to impose sentences, prompting them to imposing even longer sentences, information gathered by Pew seemed to reveal.
Part of the recommendations include taking away some of that authority from the Department of Corrections, but giving judges more options in imposing punishment other than prison sentences on offenders.
An example of the rapid growth in the prison budget is revealed by looking at what was appropriated corrections in 2003 compared to 2013.
In 2003, the agency received $239.8 million compared to $335.7 million in 2013 – a 40 percent increase in funding.
This makes the agency one of the fastest growing in state government. Education, from the kindergarten- through the 12th-grade level, grew by 43 percent, but in 2003 the state was in the early stage of enacting a $350 million program designed to move teacher pay to the Southeastern average.
The state has yet to reach the Southeastern average in teacher pay. Mississippi teachers are the second lowest paid nationally, but without that multi-year effort they would be much further behind other states.
Community colleges, also the focus of major funding legislation in the early 2000s, Medicaid, debt service and the Legislature also had similar or bigger growth in their budgets between 2003 and 2013.
In the future, state leaders fear that less money will be available for other initiatives, such as a multi-year teacher pay raise, unless the prison budget is curtailed
“As public servants, two of our highest goals are to protect public safety of all citizens and ensure that taxpayer money is spent in the wisest and most cost-effective manner,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton. “We must seek out ways to do a better job at both. The task force’s work will provide options that will allow us to achieve greater public safety at less cost.”