Legislator calls on prison reform to curb costs

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – State Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said he plans to begin work in the coming months on comprehensive reform to the state’s prison system.
Flaggs said at a luncheon meeting of the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government/capitol press corps that the state could not afford to continue funding its prison system at the current level.
Flaggs, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, predicted Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps will ask for a deficit appropriation of about $30 million for the current fiscal year from the 2013 Legislature. Corrections received $311.8 million in funding for the current fiscal year.
“I think we have too many people in our system who just have a drug problem,” said Flaggs, adding that house arrest and treatment would be more productive and less costly for many who are in a state prison.
Flaggs questioned how a person sentenced in one county might receive a five-year sentence while someone sentenced for the same crime in another county might get 30 years.
“Doesn’t it make sense to have consistent sentencing guidelines?” he said.
Flaggs said he hopes to work with House Judiciary B Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, on those issues during the upcoming session. Bills dealing with prison sentencing guidelines normally would go through the Judiciary B Committee.
Flaggs also praised Epps despite recent controversy in the system resulting in charges of sexual and physical abuse at the Walnut Grove Youth Detention Center. Florida-based GEO Group, the private company that operated Walnut Grove and two other state prisons, including the Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs, has been replaced by Management amp& Training Corporation of Centreville, Utah.
Changes had to occur at Walnut Grove because “it was inhumane,” Flaggs said.
Flaggs also predicted after the November elections state leaders who had voiced opposition to taking advantage of a Medicaid expansion offered through federal health care legislation would change their tune.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said the state cannot afford the expansion even though the bulk of the additional costs will be absorbed by the federal government.
Two other Mississippi governors who opposed Medicaid expansion also changed their minds, Flaggs said. He pointed out in the 1960s, then-Gov. John Bell Williams, who opposed Medicaid as a member of the federal Congress, called a historic special session to enact a state Medicaid program. More recently, former Gov. Haley Barbour, who campaigned against what he called an out-of-control Medicaid system, called a rare special session within the session to ensure the program was fully funded.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com