By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and other state leaders said Tuesday that recommendations from a criminal justice task force will not only reduce how much the state spends on its prison system, but also will improve public safety.
If no action is taken, it is estimated that prison costs, already one of the fastest growing areas of the state budget, will increase $266 million to reach $605 million within the next decade.
The task force, created by the 2013 Legislature, approved its final recommendations Tuesday morning with no dissenting votes and soon after, Bryant, Reeves and key representatives of the Legislature and judiciary endorsed the report during a news conference at the state Capitol. The recommendations are for the 2014 Legislature to consider when it convenes in January.
“The task force recommendations will help put us on a sustainable path,” said Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps, who chaired the task force, which included judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others interested in the criminal justice system. The task force, formed through legislation authored by House Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, began meeting in June.
The task force recommendations include:
• Giving judges more discretion in their sentencing, but ensuring the sentences imposed by judges are carried out.
• Enhancing drug courts where people will receive supervision, treatment and testing instead of being sentenced to prison.
• Intensifying the supervision of people on parole or probation.
• Imposing harsher sentences for people convicted with large quantities of drugs, but seeking treatment in some instances for those who are solely users.
• Increasing the threshold from $500 to $1,000 for a property crime to be prosecuted as a felony.
Bryant said efforts must be made to curb the amount the state spends incarcerating people. During the past decade the state’s prison population has increased 17 percent to more than 22,600. Only Louisiana incarcerates more people per capita than Mississippi.
“We cannot continue down the path we are on,” Bryant said. “By enacting these policies we will improve public safety by keeping violent and career criminals behind bars, putting the appropriate resources into alternatives for nonviolent offenders and ensuring our citizens get the best results for their tax dollars.”
The governor and others attending the news conference stressed they do not believe endorsing the recommendations means they are soft on crime. If the recommendations are carried out by the 2014 Legislature, Bryant said, “I would think Mississippi might be the worst state in the nation to commit a serious crime, but might be the best state to get a second chance.”
Chief Justice William Waller Jr. also endorsed the recommendations, but did not attend the news conference. The judiciary has been especially vocal over the fact that they say under laws passed to reduce prison overcrowding inmates are being released by the Department of Corrections at a faster rate than some judges think is appropriate. To offset that, studies indicate some judges are imposing longer prison sentences.
Under the recommendations, the Department of Corrections’ authority to release inmates for good behavior and good work will be greatly curtailed. By the same token, judges will be given more authority to impose house arrests and other sentences that might bypass or reduce prison time.
The recommendations call for nonviolent offenders to serve at least 25 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole and violent offenders to serve at least half.
House Judiciary B Chair Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said a key for the Legislature in tackling the issue will be establishing a better definition of what constitutes a violent crime.
Research gathered by the Pew Charitable Trust, a nonpartisan organization that researches public policy issues, determined that in 2012 nearly 75 percent of people sentenced to prison in Mississippi were originally sentenced for a nonviolent crime and many of those were serving for violating terms of probation or parole.
While many members of the task force indicated they did not support specific recommendations in the report, no one voted against the final report.