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Limit prison costs
by Charlie Mitchell
has paved the way, meaning Mississippi lawmakers have “cover.” If they so
choose, they may follow Gov. Phil Bryant’s reform suggestions this year that
include abundant alternatives to incarceration.
Texas is no weenie state. As other
states were reducing executions, comedian Ron White accurately pointed out
that Texas “put in an express lane.”
Texas lawmaker, as in Mississippi, the next stop for any official accused of
being “soft on crime” is the unemployment line.
But while creating that express lane
seven years ago, Texas also instituted reforms suggested by the Pew
Charitable Trust. Inmate numbers are under control. About $2 billion has
his State of the State speech, Gov. Bryant endorsed the final report of a
task force created and funded to study prisons in Mississippi. The task
force relied heavily on the Pew ideas in effect in Texas as well as
experience of other states where they’ve been tried.
the speech, Bryant stressed “protecting Mississippians” and “punishing
violent offenders.” He made scant, if any, mention of provisions that would
expand house arrest and other alternatives. But the package is, overall,
what some would call a kinder, gentler prison regimen. Others would call it
What if nothing is done?
those projections are pretty clear. While the trend across America is for
fewer people to be serving hard time, the trend in Mississippi, with 22,600
already behind bars, is ever-upward. Only Louisiana has a larger proportion
of its population in prison.
what? Costs are rising, too. Lawmakers are being asked for $14 million to
cover this year’s shortfall and for a $23 million increase for next year to
a total of $362 million in annual funding. In the past decade, prison
spending is up 28 percent in Mississippi. The increase eclipses those for
K-12 and for higher education.
what’s in these “reforms?” 1. Added clarity. 2. A tighter structure overall.
First, take violent offenders and sex criminals off the menu. About half the
people behind bars fit that category. Not much changes for them, other than
a better definition of what constitutes “violent.”
Almost everyone else in prison is there for drugs or property crimes.
here’s something a lot of people won’t realize: The No. 1 source of newbies
as well as repeat visitors to the state’s public and private prisons is
people who initially received suspended sentences, conditional sentences
(such as paying restitution or remaining drug-free) or were on probation or
As the law stands, judges have no
choice. People who don’t follow the agreements keeping them out of prison
are “revoked.” Also under state law, any person convicted of a new crime
while serving a suspended sentence must be sent to prison. No double
reforms, quite simply, add more options. Instead of being bundled off to
serve 10 years, a person under a suspended sentence who tests positive for
pot might be sentenced to community service hours, house arrest, more
intensive monitoring, a short stay in the local lockup. The idea is to
create a stairway to prison.
the task force knows and the proposed legislation makes clear that this
won’t work without responding more swiftly to “violations of suspension.”
And that means frontloading more corrections assets into casework — more
officers who work with offenders to keep them out of prison than guards
doing shiftwork at Parchman.
are other proposals. Structured sentencing, for one thing. For another,
getting rid of a few tricks and gimmicks through which the system can be
the financial front, the task force and Gov. Bryant make no pie in the sky
claim. Their best projections are (1) to stop prison growth and (2) avert
spending the $266 million projected new costs over the next 10 years if
prison populations continue to grow at the current rate.
pretty bold stuff, and it’s risky for lawmakers. But when challenged about
whether they’re “soft on crime,” they can stick Texas
out there. That state is still No. 5 in its incarceration rate, but since
enacting the reforms, the parole failure rate has dropped 39 percent and the
crime rate has returned to 1960s levels.
one likes to think about prisons. “Lock them up and throw away the key,” is
the public’s posture, which might be fine if it were financially
sustainable. It’s not. It will take work, attention and “smarts” to do
better. It’s time.