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Mitchell: Mississippi Is No. 1 in Declining Prison Population

The motivations are different, but the result is the same.

President Obama is happy about a decrease of 6,000 people in federal prisons nationwide. The rationale is that these people are nonviolent drug offenders from the 1980s and 1990s whose sentences were unduly harsh in the first place.

Mississippi’s inmate population has dropped by 3,000 people over the past several months — by far the fastest decline of any state. The rationale, though, is that prisons cost too much money.

It is a remarkable and largely unheralded change. Long the leader in incarceration — or neck and neck with Louisiana — the number of people in state custody has fallen from 21,743 in January 2014 to 18,939 last week.

What’s going on?

Assorted Pew-recommended, Texas-tested changes in approaches to locking people up were adopted, albeit quietly, by the Mississippi Legislature in 2014. Several other states did much the same. The legislation was handled with no fanfare. (Just about the worst thing to say about a legislator seeking re-election is that he or she is soft on crime. No incumbent wanted to wear that label.)

The process was started by Gov. Phil Bryant when he appointed a task force on prison reform early in his first term. That commission (which preceded the more recent commission appointed in response to top-level corruption) issued a rather straightforward report. The Legislature, for the most part, followed the recommendations.

There are some twists and turns, but the essence centers on (1) dividing crimes into violent and nonviolent categories, (2) more community-based corrections and (3) a pledge for more post-release monitoring and assistance. All track the findings of scholarly studies conducted over many years in the Public Safety Performance Project of the private Pew Charitable Trusts.

Bryant was adamant about violent offenders. No break for them. But for those who really haven’t hurt anyone but themselves, there are lesser maximum sentences and earlier opportunities for release.

The community-based aspect includes wider use of drug courts, which require that people who admit their crimes and admit their addictions undergo monitored treatment with the looming threat of being locked up. It also involves alternatives such as house arrest.

The post-release changes are related to the fact that a third of the people in prison have been there before — the so-called revolving door syndrome. Finding ways to help former inmates stay out of trouble is a lot cheaper than locking them up again.

It’s not nice to gloat — but Mississippi doesn’t get many chances to be No. 1. The reduction in the inmate tally here is 13 percent. The federal reduction is a mere 3 percent.

Amazing numbers have some with the 35-year-long surge in locking people up here and nationwide. The federal Bureau of Prisons was home to 25,000 people in 1980. Even after the first round of federal releases, the number will be at 200,000, still a 700 percent increase.

Mississippi tracked the national trend, started by President Nixon’s 1971 declaration of a War on Drugs and amplified by former Gov. Kirk Fordice’s 1995 Truth In Sentencing legislation.

Official figures today say it costs taxpayers $17,177 per year to house and feed a Mississippi inmate. That puts the price tag of a 20-year sentence, assuming no inflation, at a third of a million dollars.

For this fiscal year, Senate Bill 2855 allocated $333 million for prison operations, which is a third of a billion dollars. And unlike so many other spending categories — Medicaid, roads, education — there is no federal match or supplement. Hard time costs hard dollars.

New Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher (who got the job when his predecessor was arrested for and later pleaded guilty to federal felonies) is square-jawed and straightforward. He’s made some friends and some foes in his first year in the role, but no one doubts his determination.

For one thing, he wants higher standards and better pay for corrections officers.

For another, while corrections is costly to taxpayers, it’s lucrative to the private prisons in the state that are guaranteed a return on their investment.

What about the other thing? The effect of all these criminals being back on the streets? That’s interesting, too.

Texas, the first state to adopt the Pew reforms, has actually recorded a decrease in violent crime by making smarter use of its cell space.

Mississippi is middle-of-the-pack among the 50 states when it comes to violent crime rates. Being “smarter on crime” as opposed to “soft on crime” might lead to better scores on that, too.


Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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