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Charlie Mitchell: Corrections reforms not easy, but not optional either

 

Charlie Mitchell

 

OXFORD -- Oops. 

 

Sheriffs read the bill. 

 

So did some prosecutors. 

 

Together, they took the wind out of the sails of corrections legislation as it reached Gov. Phil Bryant's desk. 

 

Not so fast, they said. The measure went back for "fixes," then to the governor again. 

 

Earlier this year it was predicted in this column that the changes -- which de-emphasize incarceration -- would pass. 

 

Yes, the Legislature is dominated by "no nonsense" Republicans, not Democrat "coddlers." But these proposals were different. They had been wrought from reforms already in place in Texas. No one would accuse Texas of not taking crime seriously, right? 

 

Anyway, the impetus was not so much a high tolerance for lawbreakers as it was a low tolerance for bankrupting the state. No function of state government except Medicaid has seen increases near those of the Department of Corrections. Lawmakers were asked to pony up another $14 million just to cover shortfalls this year. Next year's funding will be more than $1 million a day -- roughly $2 per hour per inmate around the clock. 

 

Because the topic was more about money than it was about punishment, not much attention was paid to details of the 190-page House and Senate bills, at least not until the sheriffs dug in. Quietly at first, and then publicly, sheriffs from larger counties started speaking up. 

 

Their concerns: (1) Big flaws in listing violent crimes, (2) costs being shifted to counties, not eliminated and (3) the legislation wouldn't make the streets a smidge safer. 

 

At the end of last week, both chambers had passed the bill. But Bryant, a friend of law enforcement who started his public service in that career, said he would work to see the sheriffs' points resolved. In a statement, Bryant indicated he saw the legislation as a compromise - tough on serious criminals and not so tough on those needing a second chance. 

 

The fundamentals of the package developed by a task force remained unchanged. Felony crimes are divided into two categories: violent and non-violent. Those convicted of violent felonies must serve 50 percent of their sentences before being considered for release. Those convicted of nonviolent offenses could be considered for release after 25 percent. Any vestige of the 85 percent rule of the Kirk Fordice era -- requiring all felons to serve 85 percent of sentences -- is gone. 

 

Among the sheriffs' beefs was that four pretty serious crimes -- gratification of lust, assault on a law enforcement officer, third offense domestic violence and shooting into a vehicle -- were not listed as "violent." The sheriffs supposed this was an oversight that could be fixed. 

 

But the sheriffs also pointed out that most drug offenses were considered nonviolent. Specifically, a person selling a consumer-sized amount of heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine sentenced to the new max - five years - could be released in 15 months. "The penalties set forth in the bill would greatly affect our ability to protect our community from those who would distribute illegal drugs," their statement said. As revised, some drug offense penalties are increased. 

 

It figures that keeping prison costs level (no one has claimed this package would reduce outlays) means fewer people behind bars. 

 

It also figures that there might be some significant prisoner releases under the law. And that, generally, was the aim in Texas and the purpose of the package here. A fundamental going forward is that prison is to be reserved for those who really are a danger to the public. Anyone else has to really mess up, defeat multiple attempts -- violate probation or parole, fail to perform community service or show up for rehab or short stints in the local jail, refuse house arrest -- before being packed off to Parchman. 

 

But, as pointed out, counties -- not the state -- pay for county jails and bear some of the expenses of community-based sentences. There is a decades-old dispute between the state and localities over who pays for what and this legislation adds another spark. 

 

With the next-to-highest rate of offenders in a state system (22,000 in prison, another 10,000 in county jails, 30,000 on probation and 7,000 on parole), we're talking about a bunch of people and a bunch of money. 

 

The governor, the Legislature, the sheriffs and the prosecutors all want to strike the right balance. The tricky part has been how. 

 

Mississippi has done well to study and adapt many of the reforms enacted six years ago in Texas that are limiting costs without increasing crime. Perhaps we're closer to getting it right. 

 

 

 

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