Study shows wide differences in sentencing

Jail-BarsBy Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The percentage of people sentenced to prison for a felony conviction varies widely among the state’s 22 circuit court districts, according to information presented Wednesday to a criminal justice task force.

In District 22, located in southwest Mississippi, 83 percent of the people convicted of a felony are “disposed to prison,” while in Districts 1 and 3, which cover most of Northeast Mississippi, 34 percent of felony convictions are sentenced to prison.

The average statewide is 50 percent, according to information compiled by the Pew Charitable Trust and presented to the Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force that was created by the 2013 Legislature.

The difference in prison sentences among the circuit court districts “does raise eyebrows – at least to me,” said Corrections Commissioner Chis Epps, who is chairing the task force, which is supposed to make recommendations to the 2014 Legislature.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, and others on the Task Force said the differences could, at least in part, be explained by variations in how jurisdictions report sentencing information. For instance, it is not clear how people who are placed in programs, where if successfully completed, their records are expunged, would count in the study.

Still, the differences between districts illustrate one of the reasons House Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, authored the legislation creating the task force. Snowden said he had heard reports of wide disparities in sentences between districts. Plus, some judges and prosecutors have voiced concern that people sentenced to prison are getting out earlier than what they thought they would.

The goals of the Task Force are “to prevent, deter and reduce crime and violence, reduce recidivism, improve cost-effectiveness and ensure the interests of justice at every step of the criminal justice system.”
Epps said he would like to see more people who commit “technical” violations of their probation be placed on house arrest instead of being placed in the Department of Corrections custody. According to the Pew study, one-third of the

Mississippi prison population is made up of people who are in for violations of their probation guidelines. The study also showed 45 percent are in for nonviolent offenses and the length of prison sentences is 17 percent longer in 2012 than in 2002.

Epps said to reduce Mississippi’s growing prison costs and population, the state must devote more resources to treatment for the mentally ill and for drug and alcohol addictions.

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