LENA MITCHELL: Slowing of rising prison population may be simple to resolve

By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal

Last week, Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps noted that the state parole board has severely decreased the number of inmates awarded parole, which in turn keeps the prison population high.
When I was a police beat reporter in 1994, one of the stories I wrote that year was about the fact that U.S. prisons were approaching the milestone of one million prisoners. Less than 20 years later, at the end of 2011, the U.S. prison population had risen to more than 1.5 million, resulting from the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Those numbers escalated so rapidly in large part because of the “War on Drugs,” initiated four decades ago by President Richard Nixon. The results of that war have been less than impressive.
If the goal was to reduce the volume of illegal drugs entering the United States from other countries, that effort has failed.
If the goal was to reduce the number of people, particularly young people, who use drugs, the results have brought down drug use to some degree, but wildly disproportionate to the billions of dollars spent on the effort.
If the goal was to swell the population in U.S. prisons, the effort has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Combined with minimum sentencing laws passed under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and “three strikes” laws later passed in most states, a person convicted for three nonviolent drug offenses could wind up serving the equivalent of a life sentence.
Mississippi has its own issues with incarceration rates, second only to Louisiana in having the highest incarceration rate in the U.S. The state’s prison population has risen by more than 1,000 in the past three years, with Mississippi operating three state prisons, four private prisons and 15 regional correctional facilities for minimum security inmates, including Alcorn and Chickasaw counties in Northeast Mississippi.
In a 2007 report to “circuit courts, district attorneys, public defenders, law enforcement and interested parties,” Epps, himself, recommended various alternatives to incarceration, which are used to a greater or lesser degree throughout the states’s criminal justice system. However, as he also said in the report, the state Legislature has in many cases tied everyone’s hands.
“In 1995 the Legislature passed ‘Truth in Sentencing,’ mandating that inmates serve 85 percent of their sentence,” Epps wrote. “The 1995 fiscal year ended with an inmate population of 12,007 and a budget of $119.3 million. By the end of the 2007 fiscal year the inmate population has grown to 22,141 and the budget has increased to $306.3 million. These figures dramatically demonstrate the need to use alternatives to incarceration to curtail the ever increasing cost of incarceration.”
In 2008, Epps supported legislation that amended the “truth in sentencing” law, allowing nonviolent offenders to apply for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentences. However, since a new parole board appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant took office in January 2012, the number of prisoners released who are eligible for parole has dropped from almost 49 percent to 35.5 percent, according to Epps.
The 2013 Legislature has approved an MDOC budget of $337 million for the next fiscal year to fund approximately $29,000 per year per prison cell and other corrections costs. That number compares to an average Mississippian’s salary of $20,521 per year and an average U.S. salary of $27,915 per year, according to July 2011 census data.
With such a high percentage of nonviolent inmates incarcerated for drug offenses, if state leaders and residents demand that drug offenders be locked up, there’s a more effective and productive way to do it.
Why not turn some of those regional correctional facilities into correctional drug treatment centers, where inmates not only receive long-term treatment for their addictions but also learn new lifestyles to help prevent their return to prison?
Among the thousands of people imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses or for having an addiction, I’m sure there are enough to fill one or more of these regional facilities that house an average of about 300 prisoners.
Epps already has found ways to reduce the recidivism rate somewhat through education and other programs, and something this innovative is worth a try.
The added benefit might be that corrections officials could put a dent in the current prison culture that supports a lucrative drug trade for some inmates, by having some of their customers removed from the equation.
The move also might prevent people incarcerated for their drug habit from accruing other felonies simply from being housed in a more violent prison environment.
This may be a simplistic reading of the situation and a simplistic idea to solve it, but sometimes the simplest ideas work.
LENA MITCHELL is the Daily Journal CorinthBureau reporter and writes a Sunday column each month. Contact her at lena.mitchell@journalinc.com.