It’s rare when the recommendations of a task force appointed by the Mississippi Legislature or the governor are embraced in their entirety by key leaders. Such recommendations are usually either ignored or make their way only piecemeal into public policy discussions over an extended period.
That’s what makes the reception of a special Mississippi criminal justice task force’s proposals so unusual. Given the circumstances, there’s good reason for it.
As today’s front page story details, the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ budget has ballooned in recent years, rising 40 percent to $335 million in the past decade. It’s projected to increase another 80 percent – or $266 million – over the next 10 years if the prison population continues to increase at the current rate.
That budgetary burden will hinder the state’s attempts to better fund critical areas such as education, public safety and health care.
The fundamental issue is the size of the state’s prison population. It’s risen even as the nation’s has declined, more than doubling in the past 20 years.
A principal reason is the law passed in the 1990s that required prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentence. It was adopted as a tough-on-crime proposal, but it has produced an unsustainable trend. The Legislature, politically reluctant to repeal the law, has given Corrections officials flexibility in shortening sentences, but that has upset judges and prosecutors.
The legislatively created task force brought together people from all facets of the criminal justice system. They’ve devised a set of recommendations that would give judges wider latitude in sentencing – including alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenses – while allowing tougher sentences for more serious crimes and ensuring that all sentences are carried out.
The proposals make eminently good sense. They balance punishment for crime with the recognition that not all circumstances require incarceration. In many cases, such as drug-related offenses, alternatives to prison better serve both the defendants and taxpayer interests. On the flip side, the recommendations would ensure that tough sentences meted out to hardened criminals will stand.
Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn all immediately embraced the proposals in their entirety. The task force believes that if its proposals are adopted in their entirety, the prison population – and its attendant costs – will begin to level off.
That must happen. It’s not soft on crime to be concerned about the costs of incarceration and to recognize that prison is not always the most effective means of dealing with people who have committed crimes.
The Legislature has an opportunity to reverse an unsustainable trend by adopting the task force’s proposals.