Momentum continued building Thursday toward final passage sometime in the 2014 legislative session of a major criminal justice reform bill designed to control future cost increases for Mississippi, which has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, behind Louisiana.
The Senate on Thursday morning overwhelmingly passed a reform bill similar to the bill passed in early February by the House of Representatives.
The legislation, Bill 585, returns to the House, which can choose to agree with the Senate’s changes or invite a conference, which is the legislative way of working out differences.
The reforms rose as a priority issue because of the prison population and steadily rising costs.
Gov. Phil Bryant made the reforms one of his top legislative priorities, and a special task force produced a report, issued in December, detailing the situation and what reforms might do to improve it. The report was developed in consultation with the nonpartisan Pew Foundation, a major think tank.
The measure passed in the Senate and previously in the House is bipartisan.
Projections for new prison incarcerations show Mississippi could add 19,980 inmates by 2024, spending $266 million more in the process.
The reforms in the two versions of the bill are supposed to eliminate that rate of growth by sentencing reform but without compromising public safety or provision of justice to victims of major crimes.
The task force was backed by Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn, and Chief Justice William Waller, and chaired by Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps.
The task force spent six months studying Mississippi’s corrections and criminal justice systems and developing comprehensive recommendations.
Mississippi’s prison population has grown by 17 percent in the last decade, about four times the state’s population growth, topping 22,600 inmates in July 2013.
The state has the second highest imprisonment rate in the nation, costing taxpayers $339 million last year.
The task force recommendations, as described by the governor’s office, target five objectives:
• 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.
• Establish performance objectives and measure outcomes.
It’s tempting to throw the full force of the book against every criminal, but sometimes that practice doesn’t work and drives up costs.
Sensible reforms should be given a chance to work for all who rely on the system for justice.