Lawmakers to take hard look at saving money on prisons

JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers say they want to examine sentencing, parole and corrections practices to see if the state can find ways to save money on prisons.

Two state House committees — Corrections and Judiciary B — met jointly yesterday to hear from judges, prosecutors, the Parole Board chairman and the corrections commissioner.

“We’re going to have to establish some sort of detailed task force to study these issues,” Judiciary B Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said afterward. “It’s going to involve a lot more study than a couple hours in a hearing.”

Three circuit judges and a district attorney, speaking on behalf of colleagues, said their jobs are difficult because they often can’t give definite information about how long a convict will remain in prison. They told lawmakers that crime victims want firm answers about the expected incarceration time for convicted criminals, and the convicts themselves want answers, too.

Dewayne Richardson, district attorney in Sunflower, Leflore and Washington counties, said he talks to victims and defendants before deciding whether to take a case to trial or ask a defendant to plead guilty. He said he often must call the Department of Corrections to get an idea of how long the defendant would serve if convicted.

“We’re not able to give them a clear answer,” Richardson said.

Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon, who handles cases in Leake, Neshoba, Newton and Scott counties, said Mississippi laws often result in “catch-and-release” because some inmates spend so little time in custody, even if judges set stiff sentences.

Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps told reporters later: “Let’s be fair. … The judges know a nonviolent crime versus a violent crime.”

Epps said a person convicted of a nonviolent crime can be considered for parole after serving 25 percent of the sentence, in most cases. On a 20-year sentence, that means the prisoner could go before the Parole Board after five years. People convicted of some violent crimes never come up for parole, he said, while some can come up after serving 85 percent of their time.

Nonviolent inmates also can earn time off for good behavior. The Department of Corrections also uses house arrest in some cases, which is cheaper.

Parole Board chairman Malcolm McMillan said 47 percent of the inmates who go before the board are paroled.

Epps said he has not requested a budget increase in the past two years because he wanted to give lawmakers a chance to save money on prisons and spend it on education or other programs. For the current fiscal year, the Department of Corrections received $311.8 million, but Epps has already told lawmakers the agency will need more money to get through June 30, the end of the budget year.

“I’m already embarrassed, frankly, to ask for 30 more million dollars,” Epps said.

He said Mississippi has the lowest-paid prison guards in the nation and said he’ll continue to keep salaries low “as long as we don’t have an uprising.” He also said 64 percent of prison employees, including guards, are women, while roughly nine out of 10 Mississippi prisoners are men.

“I see trouble down the road,” Epps said.

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