OUR OPINION: Sentencing reforms could better serve the system

A special task force created by the Legislature to study changes in the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ sentencing offers encouraging discussions about changes in focus that could cost less and accomplish more.

The task force was formed this year in response to steadily escalating costs for the Department of Corrections, rising inmate populations and differences with the justice system about the length of sentences and the effectiveness of supervised release programs.

The Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force is slated to make its recommendations to the Legislature for action in the 2014 session.

Its work has developed against a background of costs that have risen 17 percent in the past decade to a budget of $337.9 million.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, has closely followed the task force’s work. He said Thursday creating more certainty in length of sentences to be served plus strongly enhancing the supervision of convicts who are on parole and/or under house arrest would be beneficial.

Bryan said the 85 percent rule – inmates required to serve 85 percent of their sentence – has proven unworkable and prohibitively expensive. Bryan said revising minimum sentence guidelines and making sure those minimums are served, plus using intensely supervised house arrest, drug courts and parole situations could produce better results, including compensation of property crime victims by the paid work of supervised prisoners.

The system should allow judges more latitude in sentencing offenders whose crimes, while felonies, are not on the severest end of the felony spectrum.

The changes would give judges more confidence that their sentences would be followed, removing the perceived necessity to increase the severity of sentences, which drives up incarceration costs.

Bryan said the result would be stricter and more strongly administered sentences inside prisons and in non-incarcerated situations.

“My personal position would not be more or less punishment but more effective punishment,” Bryan said.

Bryan also suggested there is strong support for drug courts, which always include strong participant supervision and impressive success while avoiding some of the higher costs of incarceration.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps, who has served under appointment by governors in both major parties, said in Capitol correspondent Bobby Harrison’s Thursday story that the goal is to “flatline the growth” in the prison population, which in effect stops expansion in the number of prisoners and strongly rising costs.

This serious proposal deserves the Legislature’s full review.