By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Both Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood believe changes to the state’s criminal justice system need to be enacted during the 2014 legislative session.
The changes, they say, should control costs while ensuring the people who are truly dangerous to society get long prison sentences.
“This is not about being soft on crime,” Bryant said Wednesday at his Public Safety Works Summit attended by law enforcement from across the state at a Jackson hotel. “It is about how to better manage our assets while at the same time taking dangerous people off the street.”
Bryant has said he wants the focus of the 2014 legislative session to be public safety. In doing that, the governor said state officials must be mindful that the budget for the Department of Corrections has increased 133 percent during the last 20 years and at the current trend will grow from $361 million to more than $500 billion within the next decade.
The 2013 Legislature created a study committee to make recommendations to the upcoming session on ways to reduce prison costs while still ensuring a certain amount of uniformity in prison sentences.
The work of the study committee was incorporated into Wednesday’s summit. Pew Charitable Trusts, which is working with the task force, released a study Wednesday indicating Mississippi has one of the nation’s fastest growing imprisonment rates and that the state’s prison population is growing while the nation’s is declining.
Bryant told the summit-goers, “I think Mississippi needs to be the worst place in America for violent offenders, but the best place for second chances.”
The governor pointed out that other states, such as Georgia, have enacted changes that have been successful in holding down costs while at the same time ensuring people convicted of crimes receive appropriate punishment.
Hood, a Chickasaw County native, said he believes both Republicans and Democrats are on board to tackle “a wide spectrum” of civil justice issues. He said as a former district attorney in Northeast Mississippi he used to think “you had to lock them up and throw away the key,” but he said for some people there needs to be more of a effort to provide jobs training, drug addiction counseling and the use of punishments other than prison, such as house arrest and confinement in halfway houses where the offender can work.
He also said that over a long period of time he has come to the conclusion that pre-kindergarten will do more to prevent crime than perhaps any other tool the state has.
“Reading to kids at age 3 to 6 will have greater impact than anything we can do in criminal justice,” he said.
Hood, speaking to law enforcement at the summit, said there needs to be “some horse trading” during the legislative session to more appropriately define violent crimes and ensure that people convicted of violent crimes serve the bulk of their sentence. Plus, he said, the law needs to be changed to ensure people convicted of aggravated assault and manslaughter are not allowed to get out early because of good behavior.