OUR OPINION: Inmate re-entry costs would be made up

Recidivism is a fancy word that means two things: Human lives wasted and taxpayer dollars squandered.Its literal meaning, of course, is criminal relapse. The recidivism rate is the rate at which inmates who’ve been in prison return.

In Mississippi, it’s nearly one in three within three years after their release.

That’s a stunning statistic, and the people who run the criminal justice system believe they know a big reason why it’s so high. Prisoners set free are, for the most part, simply not adequately equipped for their re-entry into society.

Daily Journal reporter JB Clark outlined the issue in Sunday’s paper. It basically amounts to this: Not enough is done while Mississippi inmates are in prison to make them more likely to succeed when they leave – to find a job, a place to live, a stable life – and few resources are available to help them once they get out.

Hard-line thinking would say, too bad, they got themselves in the fix they’re in and the state and the taxpayers have no obligation to help them in any way, whether they’re in or out of prison. Whatever the moral flaws of that argument, it’s a short-sighted view from a practical standpoint.

Not providing some skills training and re-entry assistance greatly raises the chances that released prisoners will turn again to crime. This is bad for the safety of people and property, and when they are again incarcerated, a burden on the public treasury. An investment on the front end can reduce both risks.

A criminal justice system task force made up of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, legislators and law enforcement and corrections representatives worked through most of 2013 to come up with a package of recommendations that passed both houses of the 2014 Legislature in differing forms and will now be suject to further negotiations.

The task force aimed to slow the rapid escalation in prison population and costs in Mississippi, whose incarceration rate is second in the nation and rising. It would do this by giving judges alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders while ensuring that those guilty of particularly serious crimes serve even longer time in prison.

If the recommendations are adopted as a package, the task force believes, the state could save more than $260 million over the next 10 years. The task force calls for a greatly stepped-up re-entry program for prisoners be paid for from those savings.

The up-front costs of such a commitment would be more than paid for by savings on the back end. A decline in the recidivism rate means savings for taxpayers – and a lot of lives saved from self-destruction in the process.