The state Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force today announced a comprehensive set of policy recommendations for the upcoming legislative session that will increase criminal penalties for some serious offenders and steer lower-level offenders into drug courts and other prison alternatives. The plan also clarifies sentencing laws so judges, prosecutors, offenders, and victims know how long inmates will serve behind bars.
The bipartisan, inter-branch Task Force, backed by Governor Phil Bryant, Lt. Governor Tate Reeves, House Speaker Phillip Gunn, and Chief Justice William Waller, and chaired by Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps, spent six months studying Mississippi's corrections and criminal justice systems, analyzing data, and consulting criminal justice officials from across the state to develop comprehensive recommendations.
In the last decade Mississippi's prison population has grown by 17 percent, topping 22,600 inmates in July. The state has the second highest imprisonment rate in the nation, costing taxpayers $339 million last year. Absent policy change, prison expenditures will increase by $266 million over the next decade.
"We cannot continue down the path we are on," said Gov. Phil Bryant. "By enacting these policies we will improve public safety by keeping violent and career criminals behind bars, putting the appropriate resources into alternatives for nonviolent offenders, and ensuring our citizens get the best results for their tax dollars."
Key Task Force findings include:
* Despite the large growth in corrections costs, one in every three nonviolent offenders leaving prison returns within three years.
* Almost three-quarters of offenders entering prison in 2012 were originally sentenced for a nonviolent offense, and many of these offenders were admitted for violating the terms of their community supervision, not for new criminal convictions.
* Many criminal justice stakeholders including judges, district attorneys, and crime victims want more transparency and predictability in the length of time offenders will serve behind bars.
The Task Force's consensus package averts all the projected 10-year prison growth; saving the state a minimum of $266 million dollars in otherwise required spending. The Task Force recommendations target five objectives:
* Ensure certainty and clarity in sentencing.
* Expand judicial discretion in imposing alternatives to incarceration.
* Focus prison beds on violent and career offenders.
* Strengthen supervision and interventions to reduce recidivism.
* Establish performance objectives and measure outcomes.
"Using data and research to develop a comprehensive package of policies was the right approach," said Lt. Gov. Reeves. "Mississippi is joining the growing number of states leading the way towards evidence based, data-driven, fiscally sound criminal justice systems."
"As public servants, two of our highest goals are to protect the safety of all citizens and ensure that taxpayer money is spent in the wisest and most cost-effective manner," said Speaker Gunn. "We must seek out ways to do a better job at both. The Task Force's work will provide options that will allow us to achieve greater public safety at less cost."
"Prisons, along with effective and less costly alternatives, play an important role in maintaining public safety," said Chief Justice Waller, noting that prisons consume 93 percent of the state's corrections dollars, yet just over one third of the correctional population is behind bars. "We need to safely control our prison population growth and reinvest in cost-effective programs like drug courts that stop the cycle of addiction and crime."
"The Task Force recommendations will help put us on a sustainable path," noted Commissioner Epps, the Task Force chairman. "Now is the time to take action to curb prison growth. This package will achieve savings while protecting public safety and responding to requests from judges and victims for a clear and accountable sentencing system."
In addition to Commissioner Epps, Task Force members are Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Sampson Jackson, Senate Judiciary B Committee Chairman Hob Bryan, House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, House Corrections Committee Chairman Tommy Taylor, Senator Willie Simmons, Court of Appeals Judge Larry Roberts, Circuit Judge Vernon Cotten, Hinds County Justice Court Judge Jimmy Morton, Madison County Judge Steve S. Ratcliff III, Deputy Attorney General Onetta S. Whitley, Hinds County Assistant District Attorney Jamie McBride, Madison County Public Defender Greg Weber, Director of the Capital Defense Counsel Andre' de Gruy, Yalobusha County Sheriff Lance Humphreys, Warren County Supervisor Bill Lauderdale, District Attorney Ronnie Harper, District Attorney Richard Smith, Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center Managing Attorney Jody Owens II, Clinton attorney Vicki Gilliam and former Police Chief Ken Winter of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police.
The Task Force received intensive technical assistance from the Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew and other partners have assisted about half the states, including Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina, with similar data-driven analyses of their corrections systems.