This is the second story in a two-part series which began Sunday. To read more about the current state of corrections in Mississippi. Click here for part 1.
By JB Clark
The Mississippi Legislature appointed a 21-member task force to study the state’s justice system, corrections system and the relation of the two over the coming year and then make a suggestion to the legislature in 2014.
Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, author of the bill that created the task force, said the group of representatives, judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors and representatives from the PEW Charitable Trust, Southern Poverty Law Center and other advocacy groups will look at the disconnect between what happens in a court of law and how those orders are followed through the state’s corrections system and back into the community.
“There are a lot of folks that would like us to see what other states are doing, but we’re doing this from our standpoint,” Snowden said. “We’re not taking a lead from Arkansas and Georgia but we have brought in the PEW institute. We know we have a system that hasn’t been working like it’s supposed to.”
While Snowden said the task force, which was authorized by the governor in April and recently began meeting, is not going to follow other states, data from those states will be considered along with the Public Safety Performance Project conducted by PEW.
“With this task force as broad as it is, they’ll come up with some great ideas,” Snowden said. “And, there has to be a balanced approach and we have to be ready to compromise and come forward with something the legislature can pass.”
PEW has worked with many other states to help save money and reduce prison populations while strengthening public safety through the Public Safety Performance Project. This is what some of those states have done:
In 2007, Texas was faced with a prison population projected to outgrow the state’s facilities, requiring 4,000 more prison beds at an estimated cost of $900 million.
Instead of building, the state Legislature approved a plan to invest $241 million into strategies and programs that would reduce recidivism.
The state has since reduced recidivism by 25 percent and avoided nearly $2 billion in costs while keeping the prison population at nearly the same level, according to the PEW Public Safety Performance Project.
The strategies included drug court, a program in place in at least one county in all but one of Mississippi’s 22 circuit court districts, parole half-way houses and specific facilities to house probation violators. The majority of programs dealt with substance abuse programs for drug offenders.
In Michigan, inmates are assessed when admitted to prison so that they can go through personalized programming before parole. They are transferred to a re-entry facility prior to release and given a transition plan for employment, housing, transportation, mentoring, counseling and necessary treatment for mental illness or addiction.
If Michigan inmates violate parole, instead of going back to prison they have graduated sanctions that include short stays in a re-entry center.
In 2012, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill that would mandate drug treatment for certain drug offenders.
Georgia’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform and PEW Center for the States found that almost 60 percent of Georgia’s prison admissions were drug and property offenders.
In 2012, the state enacted a reform to create degrees of sentencing base on the seriousness of burglary, theft, forgery and drug possession. The state also reinvested $175,000 in front-end risk assessment to help judges identify low-risk, nonviolent offenders who could be safely diverted from prison.
The anticipated 8 percent growth from 2012 to 2018 would have cost the state an additional $264 million so instead they invested $11.6 million in accountability courts for drug offenders and those with mental illness and another $5.7 million in residential substance abuse treatment programs.
The Arkansas Legislature voted in 2011 to strengthen community supervision program and save prison space for violent and career criminals, a measure that is projected to save $875 million in avoided prison construction and operating cost through 2020.
“For this to be successful in other states, you need to have leadership with credibility,” said Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe in the Public Safety Performance Project. “You’ve got to involve all the players; you’ve got to be able to sell the issue of the fiscal effects of continued prison growth, and you need to distinguish between those who should be in prison and those who can be handled with other sanctions.”