JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi lawmakers say they want to reduce the number of former inmates who return to prison after serving time. However, one state representative said ex-felons could have trouble finding jobs because of workers' compensation insurance policies that companies carry.
Many workers' comp policies ban employers from hiring former prisoners, said Democratic Rep. Willie Bailey of Greenville, who's an attorney. If some ex-inmates can't find work, they might turn back to crime just to put food on the table, Bailey said.
He mentioned the problem Wednesday as two House committees met to examine proposals from a group of judges, prosecutors and other elected officials who spent several months in 2013 studying the state's criminal justice system. Mississippi's prison costs have risen dramatically in the past two decades and the state has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, behind only Louisiana.
The study group released a list of reports in December, and it's asking for several changes in state laws that could make Mississippi's prison system more efficient and less expensive. The list of recommendations does not mention changing workers' compensation policies to lift the ban on companies hiring former prisoners.
"Unless we move these impediments out of the way, our reform is no good," Bailey said.
One recommendation is to set "true minimum" sentences that require nonviolent offenders to serve at least 25 percent of the prison time they're given and violent offenders to serve at least 50 percent.
In the mid-1990s, Mississippi enacted a law requiring all inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. The prison population grew rapidly after that, and the state moved away from the 85 percent policy several years ago. The study group found that judges across the state have been giving widely divergent sentences for the same crimes because of uncertainty about how long inmates will serve.
"What we have is a mish-mash, a hodgepodge," House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said Wednesday. "Nobody knows what a sentence means."
The study group's report cited figures for the state budget year that ended June 30, 2012. It said 24 percent of the nonviolent offenders released that year had served less than 25 percent of their sentence. It also said 43 percent of the violent offenders released that year had served less than 50 percent of their sentence.