In 2012 Mississippi had the nation’s second-highest imprisonment rate, trailing only Louisiana. Its incarcerated population had surged 300 percent between 1983 and 2013 to more than 22,400 inmates, and taxpayers faced the burden of spending another $266 million over the next 10 years to accommodate still more prison growth.
For all that investment public safety was still being shortchanged by ineffective practices and a lack of accountability. Among other discouraging signs, nearly one in three nonviolent offenders released from prison was back behind bars within three years.
Fortunately, Mississippi’s leaders had the vision and fortitude to tackle the problem. A bipartisan panel of legislators, judges, prosecutors, and others was appointed to study the state’s sentencing and corrections system and recommend improvements. Beginning in 2013, the Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force spent seven months reviewing data, analyzing programs and practices that were producing results in other states, and gathering input from a wide range of stakeholders.
What they found was that Mississippi had been locking up more and more nonviolent offenders in its prisons for longer periods of time. The task force also discovered an enormous increase in the number of people incarcerated because of a probation or parole violation — in many cases because of a missed meeting with their probation officer, failed drug test or other minor violation, rather than a new crime.