August 19, 2013 7:48:43 AM
JACKSON -- Funding for education versus funding for prisons -- it's a constant source of tension when Mississippi lawmakers write an annual budget.
Now, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant says he'll push to increase the prison budget as he seeks to focus on public safety during the 2014 legislative session.
"It is unfortunate, but Corrections is something we're going to have to put more money in, if we are going to keep the really bad people off the streets," Bryant told reporters during an Aug. 1 interview at the Neshoba County Fair.
The U.S Department of Justice said in late July that Mississippi in 2012 had the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, only behind neighboring Louisiana.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections budget increased 7.3 percent from fiscal 2013, which ended June 30, to fiscal 2014, which began July 1. Spending on K-12 schools increased by 2.1 percent during the same period. The overall state budget increased 2.3 percent.
Bryant said the abuse of prescription drugs "is a huge problem," and the state might need to consider treatment options for nonviolent offenders who have used, but not sold, illicit drugs. During the past decade, Mississippi has established an extensive network of drug courts, which focus on rehabilitating, rather than locking up, people who use illegal substances.
"We are going to have to find that line where we say who needs to go to prison because of that and who needs treatment and who needs to go to the drug court system," Bryant said.
The governor also said the state might consider whether it's cost-effective to have some low-security inmates serve time at home, monitored by ankle bracelets. This is less expensive than traditional incarceration.
"I'm open to those discussions, for nonviolent offenders, particularly female," Bryant said. "Taking that mother out of the home, incarcerating her away from the children, has obviously a detrimental effect on her family."
The Department of Corrections publishes a monthly fact sheet on its website. The most recent one shows that as of Aug. 1, Mississippi had 26,274 inmates, of which 22,521 were in custody in state-run or privately run prisons. The rest were in other categories: 3,229 in community corrections or medical leave, 483 in "other custody," 32 listed as escapees or walk-aways and nine hospitalized. The Aug. 1 inmate fact sheet listed 23,904 men and 2,371 women.
The total is higher than on Aug. 1, 2012, when the state had 25,649 inmates, with 21,962 in custody in state-run or privately-run prisons.
Bryant said he's interested in ideas presented by Right On Crime, an initiative supported by prominent national conservatives including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Among other things, its website says that for a prison to be considered successful, it must reduce recidivism.
Bryant said he advocates a larger role for prison ministries, including one started by the late Chuck Colson.
"Prison Fellowship was founded by Chuck Colson, President Nixon's 'hatchet man,' in 1976," the group's website says. "After he served time in a federal prison camp, Chuck felt led by God to honor a promise he made to remember prisoners and their families. That promise grew into the world's largest family of prison ministries."
Bryant said Mississippi needs to find ways to deter crime and to help former inmates stay on track once they leave prison. They might need help finding jobs, for example. The governor said some run into trouble when return to their same old neighborhoods with the same old friends.
"Before you know it," he said, "they're violating the same laws."
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