Behind Barbour's Prison Rhetoric | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Behind Barbour's Prison Rhetoric


Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps announced a new non-segregation policy for male HIV-positive prisoners yesterday.

To hear Gov. Haley Barbour tell it, if he doesn't get his way, the state's fiscal crisis could force thousands of felons out of jail and into communities. Since his Jan. 13 State of the State address, Barbour has repeatedly called for greater authority to cut state agency budgets at his discretion. The threat of convicted criminals on the streets has provided Barbour a rhetorical trump card in budget negotiations.

An 8.1 percent cut (to Corrections) would require 3,400 to 4,000 convicts to be let out of prison: 3,400 to 4,000 convicts, who are not approved for parole, have not gone through pre-release preparation or training and for whom there are very, very few jobs," Barbour said in his State of the State. "I cannot believe anyone watching this speech on TV or hearing it on the radio would vote to turn 3,400 to 4,000 convicts loose onto civil society, onto the public."

State legislators appear ready to test Barbour's claim, though. House lawmakers have passed a bill that would use state reserves to restore some of the existing budget cuts, but left the full cut to Corrections intact. A similar Senate proposal only restored $4 million of Corrections' total $29 million cut.

On Feb. 5, Barbour repeated his warning, during an announcement of another 0.5 percent budget cut across all eligible state agencies. Barbour admonished the House for ignoring the state prison system. The governor has already pledged $16 million to Corrections from the $87 million in discretionary funds he received from the federal stimulus package. If necessary, he would plug further holes in the Corrections budget himself, he said.

"The Legislature, in my opinion, should pay out of state funds a significant part of what's required to not turn loose a bunch of felons," Barbour said. "If the House chooses to spend nothing on that because they think I'll spend it, then I think that's very irresponsible--not irresponsible because, at the end of the day, I'm going to turn loose 4,000 convicts. I'm not, regardless of what they do. But they're taking away contingency funds (for) when the Legislature is not in session and we have a shortfall."

Barbour's dire words about releasing felons obscures an important fact, though: Mississippi's prison system has actually led the nation in reforming its sentencing laws specifically to allow earlier release dates for some prisoners.

In 2008 state legislators passed a number of bills that did away with Mississippi's "truth-in-sentencing" provision for nonviolent offenders. Passed in the mid-1990s, the truth-in-sentencing laws required all prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. As a result, the state's incarceration rate more than doubled between 1994 and 2008. The 2008 reforms made 4,500 nonviolent offenders who had already served 25 percent of their sentences immediately eligible for parole.

"Mississippi probably stands alone as the state that has actually eliminated its truth-in-sentencing statute and returned to where it was originally, for these offenders," said Jim Austin, president of the JFA Institute, a corrections research group.

In a recent study of the 2008 reforms, Austin found no evidence that the earlier release requirements had harmed public safety. Through August 2009, the state had released almost 3,100 prisoners under the new guidelines. Of those, only 121 returned to prison, and only 5 were arrested for new crimes; the others had their parole revoked for technical violations. That rate of 5 per 3,100, or 0.2 percent, is far below the national recidivism rate of 10.4 percent for the first year after release.

"The '08 change is one of the most dramatic reforms in the country in the past few years," said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project. "There's a reluctance to say Mississippi is somehow leading the nation in terms of its approach to this problem when the governor is currently saying, 'You can't do something like this,' but the fact of the matter is it was a dramatic change, and it seems to be working very well."

State Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps acknowledged the success of the 2008 reforms. The state's current inmate population is 1,400 below last year's numbers, he said. As of Jan. 29, the state had 21,300 prisoners, of which 7,868 were imprisoned for nonviolent offenses and 4,170 were first-time nonviolent offenders. Still, Epps said, the earlier release requirements will not help the Department of Corrections absorb this year's budget cuts. Epps also confirmed that any inmates released because of budget cuts would not receive life and job skills training.

Nevertheless, the state's past efforts at sentencing reform are proof that releasing more prisoners earlier does not necessarily endanger communities. A factor in the success of the 2008 reforms was the state Parole Board's new model for evaluating the risk of each potential parolee, according to Gelb.

"Mississippi is helping show other states that if you do take a hard look at who's behind the walls, there is a way that you can cut the enormous cost to taxpayers without jeopardizing public safety," Gelb said.

Previous Comments


"Mississippi is showing other states that if you take a hard look at who's behind the walls...." I've looked behind those walls and what I found was a disproportionate number of young A-Americans who did not have access to good legal representation and as a result, options often given to other first offerders, i,e., house arrest, probation, treatment, are not given readily or at all; especially to poor people of color.


I agree, Due to our great injustice system, money talks and time. SOme take a plea due to being threatened with 80 years versus 15, apparently because our Public Defenders/pretenders are too busy to listen or care?????????? YES> we have a new law for some guys to earn early release, but if the CASE MANAGERS or whoever punches in their time does not do there job, IT AINT HAPPENING!!!! I bet you could ask 9 out of 10 Offenders if their time is calculated correctly and the answer would be NO NO AND NO. WE the tax payers demand these people do their job. THEY ARE breaking the law!!!


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