December 18, 2013 10:00:40 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi can improve its criminal justice system, and potentially save millions of dollars, by setting clearer sentencing laws, giving judges more discretion to order alternatives to prison and taking steps to ensure former inmates don't mess up, a study group says.
The nonpartisan group of 21 judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officers, elected officials and attorneys spent more than six months analyzing sentencing practices and the prison system.
The group met Tuesday and unanimously adopted a list of recommended changes for state laws. Any changes would have to be made by legislators, who begin their three-month session in January.
Getting some of the changes enacted could be challenging because lawmakers, and others, are often elected to office with promises to be tough on crime.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said public safety will be his top issue during the 2014 session and he supports the recommendations, which he said are "smart on crime."
"Believe me, prisons serve to help deter crime. They serve to help remove dangerous felons from our streets. Unfortunately, they are also very expensive in today's economy," Bryant said Tuesday during a Capitol news conference.
Mississippi spent about $339 million a year on corrections during fiscal 2013, which ended June 30. That was up from $276 million in 2003. Without changes, the state's prison costs are on track to increase another $266 million in the coming decade, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that worked with the governor's staff and lawmakers to evaluate Mississippi's corrections system.
Mississippi has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation. According to the study group report, Louisiana had 893 inmates per 100,000 residents in 2012, Mississippi had 717 and the national average was 418.
In the past 20 years, Mississippi's overall population has grown by 14 percent but its prison population has grown 134 percent. In the past 10 years, the figures are 4 percent growth for the state population and 17 percent growth in the prison population.
In the mid-1990s, Mississippi enacted a law saying each prisoner must serve 85 percent of a sentence before becoming eligible for release. The prison population grew rapidly in subsequent years. Then, during the past several years, the state has moved away from the 85 percent requirement. House Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, said moving away from the 85 percent law created uncertainty, and some judges responded by giving longer sentences. He said sentencing has been uneven across the state. The same crime might get more punishment in some counties than in others.
"We have a system of injustice in the state of Mississippi," Snowden said.
The study group recommends that as part of setting "true minimums" in sentencing, the state should eliminate the Department of Corrections' ability to use house arrest, a supervised program that's now available to some nonviolent offenders who are within 15 months of release. The group says some judges have been giving longer sentences based on the belief that a person would end up on house arrest.
Among the recommendations of the group:
■ Guarantee that nonviolent offenders serve at least 25 percent and violent offenders serve at least 50 percent of their sentences.
■ Reduce the use of imprisonment for low-level drug possession offenders, with more severe punishment focused on those who sell drugs.
■ Give better notification to victims before a prisoner is released.
■ Expand the use of drug courts, where offenders are often ordered into a treatment program rather than prison.
■ Require parole hearings for nonviolent inmates who are 60 or older and have served at least 10 years in prison.