JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi leaders on Wednesday pledged bipartisan cooperation to make the state's criminal justice system more effective and less expensive.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood said the state needs to ensure violent offenders serve enough time. But they also said that's not enough: The state also needs to make sure inmates have job skills before leaving prison so they'll be less likely to get in trouble and return.
"Mississippi needs to be the worst place in America to be a violent offender but perhaps the best place to get a second chance," Bryant told about 200 law enforcement agents, prosecutors, judges and legislators at a public safety summit he hosted at a hotel in downtown Jackson.
Hood said Mississippi needs to take a long-term approach to reducing crime by focusing on early childhood education.
"Prevention is the cheapest bang for our buck," Hood said.
During the 2013 session, lawmakers set aside $3 million for a limited pre-kindergarten program, and officials say there's little chance of developing a statewide program in the next few years because budgets are tight. However, Hood said people can help develop youngsters' minds by reading to them.
The governor called the public safety meeting to help develop proposals for the 2014 legislative session. A group of lawmakers, judges and prosecutors has been meeting the past several weeks to work toward the same goal.
Pew Charitable Trusts has been working with the governor's staff and lawmakers to evaluate Mississippi's corrections system. The nonprofit group said Wednesday that without changes, the state's prison costs are on track to increase $266 million in the coming decade.
The group offered statistics about one of the problems Bryant and Hood addressed — how to help prisoners make a successful move into the outside world once they're released. It said more than 9,000 inmates leave Mississippi prisons each year, but the state "has no systemwide re-entry programming and just three transitional re-entry centers, which together have fewer than 100 beds."
Some other findings from Pew Charitable Trusts:
— Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation, and it has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, only behind Louisiana.
— Mississippi is currently spending about $339 million a year on corrections. That's up from $276 million in 2003.
— Mississippi's prison population has increased by 17 percent in the past decade, while the number of state residents has increased 4 percent. The state's prison population has increased 134 percent in the past 20 years, compared to a 14 percent increase in the number of state residents.