Task force seeking ways to cut Mississippi’s prison population

Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — A task force seeking ways to cut Mississippi’s ballooning prison population plans to present lawmakers with suggestions on how criminals are sentenced and released.

The judges, prosecutors and state officials on the task force cannot change laws but will make recommendations to the 2014 Legislature to reduce the number of people in state custody, now more than 22,000. Mississippi expects to spend $338 million on the Department of Corrections this year, a number that has grown along with the prison population.

Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The task force is scheduled to meet Dec. 17 to review savings figures from the proposed changes and vote on a final report. After that, lawmakers have to be convinced.

“How do we articulate this to the average legislator?” Circuit Judge Vernon Cotten of Carthage asked during a meeting Wednesday at the Capitol.

The task force suggests cutting sentences for low-level drug possession and raising the threshold for felony theft to $1,000 from $500.

The plan also calls for the state to fully fund drug courts and divert more people to them as an alternative to long prison sentences. Judges would also be allowed to sentence more people to probation or house arrest.

“What we’re intending to do is put those alternatives to prison in the hands of the judge,” said House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, one of several legislators on the task force.

The state would spend more money trying to treat people who commit crimes to feed drug or alcohol addiction instead of sending them to prison.

As a trade-off, there would be new minimums on how long convicts must be imprisoned. Nonviolent offenders would have to serve at least 25 percent of their sentence, and violent offenders would have to serve at least 50 percent. The Department of Corrections would also be barred from sending people home on house arrest.

That would relieve complaints by judges and prosecutors that they can’t predict how long someone will stay in prison.

“Ask me how long are they going to serve on this sentence you’re giving them and I have to say ‘I don’t know,'” said District Attorney Ricky Smith, Jr. of Vicksburg. “It kind of undercuts our authority in the community.”

Holding those people longer would cost more money, but Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said other changes would leave the state with a net reduction in prisoners.

The state would also agree to begin paying counties when they jail probation and parole violators and set a 21-day limit for a hearing to be held.

Now, 38 percent of state prisoners are probation and parole violators. To cut that share, the state would allow parole and probation officers to punish offenders for low-level violations, including up to four days in jail each month. It would also create specialized programs for technical parole and probation violations, and set a schedule whereby a first violation would merit 90 days in prison, a second 120 days and a third 180 days.