Which government operation is the big winner in a draft of next year’s budget?
Roads and highways?
The answer is prisons.
Gov. Phil Bryant proposes to allocate $362 million to the Mississippi Department of Corrections for the fiscal year starting July 1, plus another $14 million to supplement expenses for the rest of this year. That’s up from $339 million this year and up from $276 million just 10 years ago.
As a nation, the United States has a higher proportion of its citizenry behind bars than any other. Among the states, Mississippi’s proportion is second only to Louisiana’s.
So, are there just hundreds of people behind bars who shouldn’t be? Not likely. Most wearing those orange jumpsuits earned them.
So, what’s driving this?
Nobody seems to know. More than two years ago, Time magazine quoted Chris Epps, MDOC commissioner, as saying the state simply had to reinvent how it deals with offenders.
“We’ve got all these needs,” Epps said of the budget overall, “and we’re spending all this money on corrections. We’ve got to decide who we’re mad with, and who we’re afraid of.”
Part of the problem might be what the Rev. Jesse Jackson 20 years ago dubbed the nation’s new “prison-industrial complex.” The term recalls President Eisenhower’s warning, in the years after World War II, against creating a military-industrial complex – a network of contractors whose appetite knew no bounds and whose bank accounts had to be fed.
When Mississippians think of “prison,” we think of the Parchman State Penitentiary, once the “flagship.” But Parchman has been joined by two additional state prisons, 15 regional prisons, four private prisons and a multitude of work centers, restitution centers and county jails approved for housing state inmates. Employment at just the three big prisons is more than 2,000 people.
Jackson’s argument was that adding capacity – Mississippi built 16 new correctional facilities in the 1990s – would drive occupancy.
There’s some truth to that, no doubt. Many communities now depend on the jobs their local detention centers provide. It would be a political no-no even to think of closing one.
Now the Legislature has been taking baby steps toward reducing the number of people sent to prison, but that’s not popular either. Bryant’s executive budget takes note of the public’s desire for law and order, ramping up funding for prosecutors and such. Any talk of “freeing criminals” will run into another headline reporting that a child rapist or drunk driver had served only a portion of an assigned sentence.
But such cases – true outrages – are the exception, not the rule.
An analysis shows that a lot of what’s going on is initial nonviolent offenders mess up. Most of them pleaded guilty to felony crimes and received conditional, suspended sentences.
When they fail a drug test or fail to show for an appointment, the judges have no choice other than to revoke their freedom and send them off to prison.
Here are some numbers. There are 23,000 people behind bars in Mississippi.
The Pew Charitable Trusts reports that 93 cents of every corrections dollar is spent on housing, guarding and feeding these 23,000 inmates.
An additional 40,000 felons are not behind bars. They are on probation, parole, under other forms of detention or under a conditional release or suspension. A mere 7 cents of every corrections dollar is spent on this group.
So the question arises: Doesn’t it make sense to more intensively monitor and counsel the “probationers,” to try to keep them from doing dumb things that result in revocation of their sentences? Numbers don’t lie. Once they go in, they’re liable to be back.
The notion of “house arrest” is part of this picture, too. It simply hasn’t gained traction in Mississippi because of a public perception that anything less than a jail cell isn’t “punishment” and falls short of what criminals deserve.
Pew charts future costs of incarceration, too. Absent drastic change, the forecast is for $266 million in additional corrections costs in the next 10 years.
In the Time article, Epps didn’t pretend to have all the answers. Appointed by Ronnie Musgrove and retained by Haley Barbour and by Bryant, though, he clearly sees the need to develop a plan and take action if prison costs are to be contained in Mississippi.
They are obscene. Inattention is not an option.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.