ERROL CASTENS: Penal reform right for many reasons

ERROL CASTENS

ERROL CASTENS

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see there’s something wrong with our penal system. It costs too much money, it does too little to deter repeat offenses and it treats violent and nonviolent offenses too much alike. And Mississippi inmates are denied any ability to provide support for their families.

A recently completed study – you’ve almost certainly read about it – defined a host of current problems and issued 19 recommendations to reform Mississippi’s system of punishment for criminal acts. You and I might improve on some of the suggestions, but I don’t see a single one that is wrong.

Among the problems the commission identified were these:

• a “disconnect between the corrections and criminal justice systems”;

• almost three-fourths of new prisoners come in for nonviolent offenses;

• more enter prison for probation or parole violations than for new crimes;

• judges impose longer sentences because the Department of Corrections has too much discretion in determining early release;

• and nearly one-third of nonviolent offenders, once freed, are back in prison within three years.

Add in the realizations that (1) prisons often mix lesser criminals with worse ones, greatly increasing odds that the lesser ones will come out worse in character and greater in criminal skills, (2) the longer a person is in prison, the less support system he’ll have left when he gets out, and you have a formula for oft-repeated failure.

The study can be downloaded on the www.legislature.ms.gov home page.

Five goals categorize its 19 goals, each of which is explained in some detail:

• Ensure certainty and clarity in sentencing,

• Expand judicial discretion in imposing alternatives to incarceration,

• Focus prison beds on violent and career offenders,

• Strengthen supervision and interventions to reduce recidivism, and

• Establish performance objectives and measure outcomes.

The Task Force identified four key principles in assessing the state’s community corrections system: (1) incorporating surveillance and treatment, (2) responding to violations of supervision with swift, certain, and proportional sanctions, (3) encouraging compliance through positive incentives, and (4) focusing resources on the first weeks and months following release from prison to ensure successful reentry.

The Mississippi Legislature is considering an assortment of bills to address various ones of these issues, House Bill 585 being the most comprehensive of them.

Whether you look at the issues from the priority of public safety, humanitarianism or fiscal conservatism, Mississippi needs penal reform.

Contact Daily Journal reporter Errol Castens at (662) 816-1282 or errol.castens@journalinc.com.