EDITORIAL: Prison changes

Gov. Haley Barbour's remarks about prisoners and Parchman recently at a meeting of elected officials in Northeast Mississippi needs clarity, especially with the Lee County Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Jim Johnson.

Johnson and Supervisors Bobby Smith and Phil Morgan say they clearly heard Barbour say two units at Parchman, the largest state penitentiary, would be closed and torn down.

That prisoner population would be shifted to county jails like the Lee County Jail which, although new and large, would have to be enlarged to handle the added load of state inmates.

Lee County would be burdened with the cost of new facilities and staff.

State prisons chief Chris Epps said the only reason units at Parchman would be closed and demolished would be to cut costs.

The savings, of course would be at the state level, Costs would rise for Lee County, and might require a property tax increase. Property tax is the most general tax levied by counties and is the main source of income for both operation and capital debt like bonds sold to build new jails.

Of course, one question asked directly to the governor could resolve the issue: “Did you say it?”

If he did and there is no misunderstanding of his intent, then there's plenty to be done, including another question, “When does shifting of state costs to counties become real money?”

Supervisors Smith and Morgan are concerned about Lee County's obligations as is Sheriff Johnson. They should be concerned, and they need to know what the governor has in mind.

This isn't a partisan issue. It's about finance, corrections administration, law enforcement, interagency action, and long-term policy.

Mississippi has 45,000-plus inmates and parolees – roughly the population of some of our largest cities. It's a shame, but it's a fact. It's unavoidable big government about safety, justice, race relations, and financial efficiency.

The sooner the facts are laid out for everyone to see, the easier it will be for everyone involved to deal with them.

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