CHARLIE MITCHELL: Goal: Limit prison costs without being ‘soft on crime’

CHARLIE MITCHELL

CHARLIE MITCHELL

Texas has paved the way, meaning Mississippi lawmakers have “cover.” If they so choose, they may follow Gov. Phil Bryant’s reform suggestions this year that include abundant alternatives to incarceration.

Texas is no weenie state. As other states were reducing executions, comedian Ron White accurately pointed out that Texas “put in an express lane.”

For Texas lawmakers, as in Mississippi, the next stop for any official accused of being “soft on crime” is the unemployment line.

But while creating that express lane seven years ago, Texas also instituted reforms suggested by the Pew Charitable Trust. Inmate numbers are under control. About $2 billion has been saved.

In his State of the State speech, Bryant endorsed the final report of a task force created and funded to study prisons in Mississippi. The task force relied heavily on the Pew ideas in effect in Texas as well as experience of other states where they’ve been tried.

In the speech, Bryant stressed “protecting Mississippians” and “punishing violent offenders.” He made scant, if any, mention of provisions that would expand house arrest and other alternatives. But the package is, overall, what some would call a kinder, gentler prison regimen. Others would call it simply smarter.

What if nothing is done?

Well, those projections are pretty clear. While the trend across America is for fewer people to be serving hard time, the trend in Mississippi, with 22,600 already behind bars, is ever-upward. Only Louisiana has a larger proportion of its population in prison.

Guess what? Costs are rising, too. Lawmakers are being asked for $14 million to cover this year’s shortfall and for a $23 million increase for next year to a total of $362 million in annual funding. In the past decade, prison spending is up 28 percent in Mississippi. The increase eclipses those for K-12 and for higher education.

So, what’s in these “reforms?”

1. Added clarity.

2. A tighter structure overall.

First, take violent offenders and sex criminals off the menu. About half the people behind bars fit that category. Not much changes for them, other than a better definition of what constitutes “violent.”

Almost everyone else in prison is there for drugs or property crimes.

Now here’s something a lot of people won’t realize: The No. 1 source of newbies as well as repeat visitors to the state’s public and private prisons is people who initially received suspended sentences, conditional sentences (such as paying restitution or remaining drug-free) or were on probation or parole.

As the law stands, judges have no choice. People who don’t follow the agreements keeping them out of prison are “revoked.” Also under state law, any person convicted of a new crime while serving a suspended sentence must be sent to prison. No double probations.

The reforms, quite simply, add more options. Instead of being bundled off to serve 10 years, a person under a suspended sentence who tests positive for pot might be sentenced to community service hours, house arrest, more intensive monitoring, a short stay in the local lockup. The idea is to create a stairway to prison.

Now the task force knows and the proposed legislation makes clear that this won’t work without responding more swiftly to “violations of suspension.” And that means frontloading more corrections assets into casework – more officers who work with offenders to keep them out of prison than guards doing shiftwork at Parchman.

There are other proposals. Structured sentencing, for one thing. For another, getting rid of a few tricks and gimmicks through which the system can be gamed.

On the financial front, the task force and Bryant make no pie in the sky claim. Their best projections are (1) to stop prison growth and (2) avert spending the $266 million projected new costs over the next 10 years if prison populations continue to grow at the current rate.

It’s pretty bold stuff, and it’s risky for lawmakers. But when challenged about whether they’re “soft on crime,” they can stick Texas out there. That state is still No. 5 in its incarceration rate, but since enacting the reforms, the parole failure rate has dropped 39 percent and the crime rate has returned to 1960s levels.

No one likes to think about prisons. “Lock them up and throw away the key,” is the public’s posture, which might be fine if it were financially sustainable. It’s not.

It will take work, attention and “smarts” to do better. It’s time.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

  • FrereJocques

    How about DECRIMINALIZING marijuana use, possession, and paraphernalia? Period? That will go towards solving a huge part of the problem right there.

    When 75% (my own figure, based strictly on observation and published surveys) of the populace is doing something that has no significant consequences, and is in fact considered as recreational, why is it still considered a crime?

    Decriminalize marijuana now!