A new Pew Charitable Trusts study documents what most state legislators already know from wrestling the state’s budget – Mississippi’s prison population is soaring and so is the cost of operating the state’s prison system.
Here’s a succinct description of the problem from the Pew study: “Mississippi’s prison population has grown by 17 percent in the last decade and 134 percent in the past 20 years. The comparable figures for Mississippi’s resident population are 4 and 14 percent, respectively.
“That is, prison growth in Mississippi was more than four times and almost nine times faster than resident population growth, for the respective periods. The state now houses more than 22,600 prisoners and has the second-highest imprisonment rate in the country, trailing Louisiana.
“Mississippi taxpayers spend $339 million annually on corrections, up from $276 million in 2003. The vast majority—93 percent—pays for prisons, while the remainder funds probation, parole, and house arrest.”
What brought about that growth in Mississippi’s prison population at a time of national prison population decline?
Mississippi joined a host of states around the country in adopting so-called “truth-in-sentencing” or mandatory-minimum laws in 1995. The laws require all inmates sentenced to felony time in the state penitentiary system - violent and non-violent offenders alike - after July 1, 1995, to serve 85 percent their term before they could even be considered for parole.
The rationale was that longer, tougher prison sentences would be a deterrent to crime, but there were other factors pushing mandatory minimums legislation through the Legislature. Adoption of the laws in 1995 also qualified the state for federal funding under a federal crime bill.
In addition, lawmakers had grown frustrated with erratic discretionary swings by former Parole Boards between periods of tough and then lax parole standards. That brought pressure on lawmakers to stabilize paroles. Many believed the "truth-in-sentencing law" would accomplish that.
Finally, “truth-in-sentencing” rode to passage on the cycle of both rising overall FBI indexed crime rates (murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft) and rising violent crime rates in the decade prior to legislative adoption of the law. As one might imagine in Mississippi, public support for adoption of the law was vocal and solid.
But the unintended consequences of the law were alarming. Mississippi's prison population soared from 12,292 at the end of the 1995 fiscal year to 31,031 at the end of the 2005 fiscal year.
State lawmakers over the last decade have tweaked the state’s “good time” policies for non-violent offenders and reinstated parole eligibility for inmates convicted of non-violent crimes. While those policies changes helped, it hasn’t been enough.
For a number of Southern states, the concept of “justice reinvestment” is being examined and that includes Mississippi. Clearly, Mississippi’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws need additional revision.
In addition, the state needs to consider technologies that make house arrest under electronic monitoring and other alternative forms of punishment viable for first-time non-violent offenders as a means to put the cost of housing and feeding criminals back on the criminals and off the taxpayers.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.