By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – A task force created by the 2013 Legislature to look at changes to the criminal justice system is expected to recommend limiting the Department of Corrections’ ability to release inmates.
But in turn, judges will be given more discretion to look for alternatives to prison sentences for some nonviolent offenders.
The Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force, which consists of judges, attorneys and others involved in the criminal justice system, is slated to make its final recommendation to the Legislature and governor on Dec. 17.
“Our goal is to flatline the growth” in the prison population, Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said Wednesday during a meeting of the task force at the state Capitol. “…If we don’t do anything, it will be another $266 million… and another 2,000 inmates” within the next 10 years.
Mississippi already has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country. The budget for Corrections, currently $337.9 million, has grown 123 percent in the past 20 years and 17 percent in the past decade.
The recommendations, if approved by the Legislature, would result in more “certainty” in the sentencing process for judges, said House Judiciary B Chair Andy Gipson, R-Braxton. The certainty would come by removing some of the authority of the Department of Corrections to release inmates based on their good work and performance in prison and to place inmates on house arrest.
But the task force also is expected to recommend changes to drug laws so that a person arrested with a small amount could get a lighter sentence or be sentenced to drug court or to house arrest. Gipson said judges should be able to distinguish between someone with an addiction problem and someone making money from the sale of drugs.
Another recommendation will be to increase the threshold to make a theft a felony from $500 to $1,000.
There also is expected to be a focus on more enhanced supervision of those on probation or parole and alternatives to placing people on parole back in prison for “technical violations.”
Gipson said, “This is not a one-year, two-year or three-year fix. We are looking 10 years down the road.”
Many key state leaders have said issues surrounding the criminal justice system need to be addressed.
At a recent meeting of state business leaders, Gov. Phil Bryant said the state must work to curb growth in the prison budget. He has said he wants the focus of the 2014 legislative session to be the criminal justice system.