To say that politics sometimes gets in the way of good public policy would be a pronounced understatement. Back in the 1990s, Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature took on their best “get tough on crime” posture and passed a law requiring all prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentences. The result was predictable. Over the last two decades, Mississippi’s prison population has doubled.
Within a very few years of the 85 percent law’s passage, legislators became aware that the escalating prisons budget for the Department of Corrections was unsustainable. Good public policy would have been to make some overt adjustments in the law, especially for nonviolent offenders.
But that would have been politically risky. It might look “soft on crime.” So instead lawmakers quietly gave the Department of Corrections more latitude in cutting sentences for prisoners who had earned time through good behavior. That change upset judges and prosecutors, who no longer could predict the actual duration of the sentences they imposed or recommended. Today, costs for incarcerating prisoners in Mississippi is projected to increase $266 million – or 80 percent – over the next decade. With all the other pressures on Mississippi’s budget, the state doesn’t need that one staring it in the face.
So for once, it appears that politics may give way to a more sound public policy. A criminal justice task force created by the 2013 Legislature has issued a set of 19 recommendations and the state’s top leadership – Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn – have rallied behind the proposals. They appear to have a good chance of making it through the Legislature.
If adopted, these task force recommendations – detailed in a comprehensive story in Sunday’s Journal – would slow and perhaps over time curtail the growth in prison population. They would not, however, endanger public safety in any way.
They give judges more latitude in imposing nonincarceration sentences on nonviolent offenders while ensuring that hardened criminals guilty of heinous crimes serve more time. They emphasize alternatives to prison that have been proven to reduce recidivism and procedures that would save taxpayers’ dollars wasted needlessly on holding people in jail who don’t need to be there. They also would ensure that much more is done while prisoners are serving their time to prepare them for re-entry into society.
The recommendations are solid, common-sense solutions to prison overcrowding that will make the system more cost-efficient and likely more successful in reducing the number of repeat offenders. If the Legislature moves on these reforms, it will be a triumph of good public policy over knee-jerk politics.