Reinvest prison savings

About six years ago, Mississippi got a warning: Its distinction as the nation’s second-highest incarcerator was not financially sustainable.

If lawmakers didn’t act, the state was on a path to see its corrections expenditures rise by $266 million over the ensuing decade.

To their credit, lawmakers did something. In fact they did a series of somethings designed to put fewer people behind bars and to treat the underlying conditions that lead some individuals to commit crimes.

The legislative watchdog group, the Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, recently released its evaluation of how these criminal justice reforms have worked out.

The analysis was generally encouraging in saving money in the short term, but not as hopeful in maintaining these savings over time.

First the good.

The most impactful reform, the PEER report said, was the 2014 legislation that reduced certain property and drug crimes from felonies (that is, likely to result in prison sentences) to misdemeanors (likely to result in fines). The state saw an almost immediate drop of nearly 11 percent in its prison population, producing savings of almost $200 million over five years.

The incarceration drop, though, was short-lived. By 2016, the number of inmates began rising again. The reasons cited were that parole violations increased and more offenders drew prison sentences for drug possession. Additionally, according to PEER, even though some offenses were statutorily downgraded, the incidence of their occurrence did not change. Instead of circuit courts being bogged down with these crimes, now county and municipal courts are, the report said.

“This finding is indicative of the need for more intervention deter crime rather than to shift it,” the PEER report said.

In theory, lawmakers already understand that point. During the 2019 legislative session, they took the successful sentencing alternative of drug courts and expanded the idea to include mental health courts, family courts and veterans courts — all designed to get at the root causes of crime, such as addiction or other forms of mental illness. It’s too early, PEER said, to measure what impact this expansion in intervention courts is having. They will only be as effective, however, as Mississippi is willing to invest in them.

That’s been one of the problems. The Legislature used most of the savings from the 2014 sentencing reform to patch budget holes and fund tax cuts, rather than reinvesting the money in educational or drug-treatment programs for offenders, or paying prison guards enough to fill the massive number of vacancies.

Intervention courts, which currently number 40 in the state, have great promise. The chief justice of Mississippi’s Supreme Court, Mike Randolph, has estimated that drug courts alone have saved the state $452 million since 2012. In order to maximize this benefit, though, lawmakers must support intervention courts not just in theory but with the funding it takes to replicate them statewide.

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