COMING MONDAY: A look at what other states have done to reorganize corrections.
By JB Clark
Over the past five years, imprisonment has fallen in 29 states with double-digit decreases in 10 states.
Over that same period, Mississippi’s state’s prison population has increased by 5 percent.
A new 21-member Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force that recently began meeting gives Mississippi an opportunity to change the way criminal offenders are sentenced, analyze recidivism – the rate offenders return to prison after release – and possibly save money.
The task force has been given the job of studying sentencing and inconsistency in sentencing, mandatory minimums, cost-effectiveness, the rate prisoners return after release and crime deterrence among many other things.
Since 2008’s record-high incarceration rate in the U.S., with one in 100 adults being behind bars, according to the PEW Public Safety Performance Project, the national prison population has declined for two years.
According to the PEW study, tight budgets, public support and alternative recidivism reduction programs are listed as the three leading factors for states that made an effort to reduce prison populations.
Christopher Epps, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, said the only way to lower the state’s prison population, save money and reduce recidivism is by re-evaluating the way nonviolent offenders are sentenced.
“The only way of reducing Mississippi’s prison population growth while protecting public safety is by diverting a greater number of low-risk offenders from prisons, reducing the time that low-risk offenders are in prisons or a combination of these approaches,” Epps said earlier this year.
The task force is made up of representatives, senators, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and corrections leaders as well as representatives of the PEW Charitable Trusts and Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I’ve thought there is a disconnect between the criminal justice system and corrections and there is no rhyme or reason I can discern why some people stay in prison as long as they do or why some get out when they do,” said Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, who authored the House of Representatives bill that created the Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force but does not actually serve as a member. “The idea is to get everyone at the table and consider the overall problem. It’s not just about incarceration cost but how do we have a better system.”
COST OF CORRECTIONS
Nationwide, state corrections expenditures rose 333 percent between 1987 and 2011. Similarly, from between 1992 and 2012, the Mississippi Department of Corrections budget has increased 310 percent with a budget of $339,823,231 in 2012.
Along with the budget increase, Mississippi’s prison population has increased all but four years since 1990, 170 percent in the last 22 years. The prison population as of Aug. 18, the most recent population published, is 22,476, approximately 0.75 percent of the state’s population.
Each state corrections inmate costs an average of $41.51 per day, or $15,151.15 each year. Mississippi spends less per inmate than most states. Nationally, the average inmate costs $23,300 a year.
In 2011, an estimated 11,422 people were in Mississippi jails with another 36,593 on parole or probation, according to The Sentencing Project, bringing the total number of people estimated in the corrections system in Mississippi in 2011 to 69,422 – about 2.3 percent of the state’s population, or one in every 43 Mississippians.
Within the first three years of release from prison, 27 percent of Mississippi felons will commit another crime or violate parole. Those felons will usually be arrested by a local agency and housed in a county jail until they can go before a judge for a revocation hearing, a process that costs additional money at the county level and can take months.
Epps has said to increase public safety without increasing the cost of prisons, “We need to figure out whom we’re mad at and whom we’re afraid of. We need to consider alternatives to incarceration, especially for nonviolent first-time offenders.”
The largest two populations of Mississippi inmates are people incarcerated for possession of drugs (15.95 percent) and property crimes (16.78).
People charged with aggravated assault, homicide, manslaughter, violent charges or sex offenses make up 30.1 percent of Mississippi’s prison population. The rest of the population is serving burglary, robbery, property or drug charges.
Property offenders serve an average of 5.12 years. People charged with burglary and possession of drugs average between eight- and 8.5-year sentences while people convicted of child molestation average 5.78-year sentences.
Those with homicide convictions average 49.51-year sentences with life sentences averaged as 50-year sentences.
IS IT WORKING?
Between 2004 and 2007, Mississippi released 8,428 people per year from state prisons, according to the Public Safety Performance Project. In 2004, 12 percent of the returning prisoners went to prison for new crimes and 22 percent returned for technical violations of their probation or parole.
Mississippi inmates who complete a prison education program have a three-year recidivism rate of about 2 percent, according to the National Strategic Planning and Analysis Research Center.
In 2013, the Mississippi Department of Corrections reported a recidivism rate of 27.65 percent, the lowest in the country. The national recidivism rate is 52 percent.
Prentiss County Sheriff Randy Tolar said it can be frustrating to investigate a crime, arrest a suspect and get a conviction, only to see that person paroled months later and then re-arrested and sitting in his county jail for violated parole.
“There are (education) programs in the prison, while they’re in custody, but once they’re on probation or parole, they’re on their own,” Tolar said. “I think we could reduce that rate but some significant numbers if we had a program in place where they could be gradually integrated into society. To get working and have some means of transportation where they could get their feet on the ground.”
Tolar said one program, the felony drug court, has seen results in stopping recidivism in his county. Drug court is a program that takes nonviolent, first-time drug offenders through rehabilitation while making them maintain a job and test for drugs weekly and pay for the program. The participants go through drug court in lieu of prison.
Tolar would like to see a program on the other end of incarceration to help rehabilitate nonviolent offenders.
He said the drug court graduates are people he saw come through his jail regularly on small but escalating charges until they reached the felony level.
The Mississippi State Auditor’s Office released a report in 2003 saying if 500 participants go into a statewide drug court system instead of being housed in the state Department of Corrections, the state could save about $5.4 million.