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September 24, 2013

Miss. sentencing, prison policies up for debate

JACKSON — Mississippi judges and prosecutors told lawmakers Tuesday that they're tired of the uncertainty about how long people will stay in prison after sentencing.

Many inmates can earn time off for good behavior in prison. That means, for example, that a 10-year sentence for a nonviolent crime could translate into fewer years locked up.

"We are the ones who get the phone calls and run into people in the store complaining about it," said Ronnie Harper, district attorney for Adams, Amite, Franklin and Wilkinson counties.

Yet, some policymakers say if judges are giving stiff sentences simply to ensure that inmates will remain incarcerated longer, that's stretching state resources.

A group of lawmakers, judges and prosecutors met Tuesday at the Capitol to discuss prison policies and sentencing practices. The task force could recommend changes for lawmakers to consider during the 2014 session.

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, worked six years as an assistant district attorney before he was elected to the Legislature in 2011. He said the responsibility for uncertainty about how long inmates will serve belongs not to the court system but to the people who write the laws.

"The Legislature has created a system of distrust," Wiggins said.

In the mid-1990s, Mississippi enacted a law that said all inmates must serve at least 85 percent of a sentence before becoming eligible for parole. Legislators have eased that requirement on nonviolent crimes in recent years, but the state still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said that in about the past 15 years, Mississippi's prison population has gone from 11,000 to 24,000 and the Department of Corrections budget has gone from $119 million to $348 million.

The strain on the state budget prompted the House and Senate, during the 2013 session, to establish the group to study sentencing and prison policies.

Senate Judiciary B Committee Chairman Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said sentencing for the same types of crimes can vary widely from one circuit court district to another. Bryan said while different judges might give longer or shorter sentences for the same type of crime, "the issue may well be who the DA is" because district attorneys make recommendations about sentencing. Bryan said it would help judges if the state could guarantee an inmate would serve at least a certain number of years.

House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said 45 percent of Mississippi prison beds are filled by inmates sentenced for nonviolent offenses. He said admissions to Mississippi prisons grew nearly 35 percent between 2002 and 2012. Still, he said the solution is not to dictate what judges must do.

"We don't want to take away judicial discretion," Gipson said.

Circuit Judge Charles Webster of Clarksdale, who's chairman of the Mississippi Conference of Circuit Judges, said he agrees judges need discretion.

"The facts are going to be different in every case," said Webster, one of three judges in a circuit that includes Bolivar, Coahoma, Quitman and Tunica counties.

Circuit Judge Vernon Cotten, one of two circuit judges in Leake, Neshoba, Newton and Scott counties, asked whether the state could make more use of restitution centers.

Epps said Mississippi has four such centers, in Flowood, Greenwood, Jackson and Pascagoula. Participation is limited to first-time offenders, and inmates generally stay in restitution centers six to nine months, he said. They hold jobs and pay $11 a day for their own room and board. In addition to paying restitution for a crime, they are required to send money to their own families and to put some into savings, Epps said.

The recidivism rate for inmates at restitution centers is low, the commissioner said.

 

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