Population growth dips in prisons, Epps says

JACKSON – The skyrocketing growth in Mississippi’s prison population is finally beginning to slow.
During a recent hearing before the Legislative Budget Committee, Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said the state’s prison population is supposed to grow by about only 130 inmates during the upcoming year.
“That is good news,” said Epps.
That slow growth will reverse a trend that has seen the prison population increase by more than 65 percent in the last 14 years.
In 1995, when the Legislature passed the truth-in-sentencing law, the prison population stood at 13,000. That law required all inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole.
Today the prisons hold more than 21,500 inmates, not including about 1,400 under the house arrest program and another 1,400 in other programs.
With the growth in the population has come a corresponding growth in the agency’s budget. In fiscal year 1996, about $160 million was appropriated to the agency.
During the recent hearing with legislative leaders on the Budget Committee, Epps asked for about $363 million for the upcoming fiscal year and $7 million for the current fiscal year.
In an attempt to curb growth in the program, the Legislature in recent years has passed bills – signed into law by Gov. Haley Barbour – to ease the restrictions on the truth-in-sentencing law so that non-violent offenders do not have to serve 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole.
About 1,300 non-violent inmates have been paroled or placed under house arrest as a result of the changes made in the law during the 2009 session.
In the mid-1990s, numerous states passed similar truth-in-sentencing laws, but Mississippi, according to Corrections officials, was the only state in which the law applied to all inmates.
“We are finally getting to the point where we have some breathing room for the 1995 law,” Epps told the Budget Committee.
Despite the change in law and slowdown in the growth in the prison population, the agency continues to be a strain on the state budget. Earlier this month, when Gov. Haley Barbour cut state agencies because of a slowdown in revenue collections, he exempted Corrections from the cuts.
“We can’t cut Corrections without turning people loose,” Barbour said at the time.
A significant portion of the Corrections budget goes to provide medical care for inmates. The state is required to provide health care to the prison population. For the upcoming fiscal year, Epps is requesting $54.9 million from the Legislature for medical services.
“We have a lot of sick people in Mississippi and a lot of them are in jail,” he said.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal