Tuesday, December 24, 2013 12:00 AM
When the Mississippi Legislature reconvenes after the New Year, one of the major issues of the session will be criminal and children's justice issues. Republican Governor Phil Bryant and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood both advocate changes and appeared together in October at a Public Safety Works Summit in Jackson. Bryant wants Mississippi to be the toughest place for violent offenders and the best place for second chances. Hood, a former district attorney, said he believes smart reform policies work better than his former mindset of "lock them up and throw away the key."
This year the Mississippi Legislature established the Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force to study policies and costs and develop reforms for legislative consideration. The report issued earlier this month outlined some of the problems: "Mississippi's prison population has grown by 17 percent in the last decade. In July of this year, Mississippi's prisons housed 22,600 inmates. Mississippi now has the second-highest imprisonment rate in the country, trailing only Louisiana. Absent policy change, these trends will continue and Mississippi will need to house an additional 1,990 inmates by 2024. This growth is estimated to cost the state an additional $266 million in corrections spending over the next 10 years."
The report continues, "the state adopted a series of patchwork release policies that undermined the clarity in sentencing, created a disconnect between the corrections and criminal justice systems, and were ultimately unsuccessful at controlling prison population and cost growth."
How unsuccessful? According to the report more offenders are entering prison for supervision violation than for new crimes; sentencing rates have increased by 28 percent because of uncertainty over how long prisoners will actually serve; about one in three nonviolent offenders return to prison within three years of release and 75 percent of offenders entering prison last year were nonviolent offenders.
The Task Force recommends, among other reforms, instituting "true minimums" to guarantee nonviolent offenders serve at least 25 percent and violent offenders serve at least 50 percent of the sentences; eliminate the Department of Corrections' Intensive Supervision Program and return house arrest policies to judges; clarify the definition of "violent offense"; streamline parole processes; enhance and standardize victim notification; expand eligibility for alternatives to incarceration; expand eligibility and standardize policies for drug courts; create targeted punishments for property and drug offenses; implement a "geriatric parole hearing trigger" for offenders 60 years or older and ensure nonviolent offenders are parole eligible; create consistency in "trusty" policy; implement graduated sanctions and incentives for supervised released; create alternative detention centers for supervision violations; and streamline jail transfers.
The Task Force projects these recommendations would freeze projected prison growth and save $266 million over the next decade. The reforms are not sexy and not made for bumper sticker politics, but both Republican and Democratic legislators should find portions of the reforms they can support.
Meanwhile, another report focused on children and families presents additional reforms.
The Mississippi Commission on Children's Justice, created by the Mississippi Supreme Court and co-chaired by Supreme Court Justice Randy Pierce and Rankin County Youth Court Justice Thomas Broome, issued recommendations to improve child protection and foster care through the expansion of youth courts.
"The Commission's goal is to have better outcomes for children. Our children deserve the best we have to offer. I believe the implementation of the recommendations will result in a more efficient and responsive child protection system," Pierce said in a release. Broome said the reforms would "get some uniformity in our youth court system of justice."
The Commission's recommendations include: authorize court-appointed attorneys for indigent parents in cases which could involve the termination of parental rights; fund a full time guardian ad litem (attorney representing the interests of the child) in each chancery district; creation of a resident jurist to assist the Supreme Court with matters of youth court, the Department of Human Services, and to assist in training youth court judges; and authorize in-house counsel to advise case workers for each region in the Department of Human Services.
Following these recommendations, Mississippi Chief Justice Bill Waller called for the legislature to create a statewide county court system. Waller seeks an additional 20 county courts by grouping the 61 counties currently without a system into districts of no more than four counties each. Currently, 21 counties have a county court system. While the county courts could hear civil actions on matters less than $200,000, preliminary criminal matters and appeals from municipal and justice court cases, they would also serve as a statewide uniform youth court system. Currently, in 60 counties without a county court system, a chancellor appoints attorneys to serve as part-time youth court "referees."
Broome said Waller's recommendation would "certainly be of benefit to the people who need it the most - our children and families."
Brian Perry is a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC and a columnist for the Madison County Journal. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.