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Bi-partisan criminal justice panel urges refocusing of sentencing, parole policies

In a report issued Tuesday, the Mississippi Criminal Justice Task Force concluded Mississippi’s criminal justice and corrections systems are at a critical crossroads.

The Task Force concluded that the route the state has taken up to now leads to more than a quarter of a billion dollars in additional spending over the next 10 years; a second route that would put fewer non-violent offenders in prison would save $266 million over the same period.

Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

The bi-partisan study is in response to a projected increase of 2,000 inmates over the next 10 years, an enormous strain in light of the current explosion in Mississippi inmate numbers. The Task Force says its recommendations will halt the growth and “safely reduce the population, saving a minimum of $266 million.”

The Task Force study titled “Improving Public Safety and Containing Corrections Costs in Mississippi” found that

three-quarters of offenders admitted to Mississippi prisons were convicted of a nonviolent crime, and just 7 percent of the corrections budget is spent on community supervision programs such as house arrest, probation, or parole, although 64 percent of offenders are on community supervision.

Further, most of the released inmates who end up back in prison get there through parole violations – not new offenses, the study found. “In fact, FY2012 was the first time more offenders entered prison from a revocation from supervision (5,481) than from a new criminal sentence (4,973),” the report noted.

In fiscal 2012, the average length of prison stay for revocations was 20 months, the study says.

The task force chaired by Mississippi Commissioner of Corrections Chris Epps recommends:

–Ensuring certainty and clarity in sentencing;

–Expanding judicial discretion in imposing alternatives to incarceration;

–Focusing prison beds on violent and career offenders;

–Strengthening supervision and interventions to reduce recidivism;

–Establishing performance objectives and measuring outcomes;

–Ensuring certainty and clarity in sentencing.

“Without action, Mississippi’s prison population is expected to rise by nearly 2,000 over the next 10 years. The Task Force recommendations will halt the growth and safely reduce the population, saving a minimum of $266 million,” said the study panel’s report, which received assistance from the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project.

Elaborating on the “ensure certainty and clarity in sentencing” recommendation, the Task Force suggested instituting “true minimums” to guarantee that nonviolent offenders serve at least 25 percent and violent offenders serve at least 50 percent of their court-ordered sentences.

In addressing more clarity in sentencing, the Task Force concluded that the state’s variety of earned time and early release mechanisms makes it difficult to predict how much time an offender will spend in prison. The percent of a sentence served in prison can vary widely even within the same offense type based on how much time an offender earns and whether he is paroled or released on house arrest.

Of the nonviolent offenders released in FY2012, 24 percent had served less than 25 percent of their sentence. Of the violent offenders released that same year, 43 percent had served less than 50 percent of their sentence.

The Task Force said it believes this uncertainty has led courts to issue longer sentences, even if they are not actually trying to ensure that offenders serve more time behind bars.

Further, the report suggests the state give judges more discretion to impose non-prison sentences that it says often may be more effective at reducing recidivism.

It suggests accomplishing this by:

–Lifting the exclusion to non-adjudicated probation for all drug offenses with the exception of trafficking convictions;

–Lifting the exclusion to probation for offenders who have a previous felony conviction;

–Lifting the exclusion to the Intensive Supervision Program for offenders who have a previous felony conviction and authorizing judges to impose the Intensive Supervision Program to low risk, nonviolent offenders when appropriate.

The study also wants a further expanding of Mississippi’s drug courts to include offenders whose law breaking is related to substance abuse or addiction. “Mississippi’s commercial drug offense statutes do not differentiate between offender conduct that is driven by addiction and conduct that is driven by greed and financial gain,” the study report said.

What’s more, the panel wants a change in the harsh sentences for drug sales involving only marginal amounts of an illegal drug.

“An offender convicted of selling one gram of cocaine faces the same sentencing range as a person convicted of selling 40 grams. This disparity creates a wide range of sentences for similar conduct and provides little legislative guidance for addressing the diverse criminal conduct encompassed by these offenses.”




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