For months, I’ve had the privilege to serve on a 21-member Mississippi Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force which has studied and assessed our State’s criminal justice system from the top down. When the Task Force started its work in the summer of 2013, we asked ourselves one question: How can Mississippi taxpayers get more public safety from every tax dollar we spend? Our 21-member group, which included legislators, judges, district attorneys, and local elected officials from the county supervisors’ association and the sheriff’s association met publicly for seven months, analyzing state and county data and reviewing research about what works to reduce drug use and crime in our communities. I’d like to thank all these stakeholders for their time and hard work in this process. The 19 evidence-based policy recommendations we developed, taken as a package, will save taxpayer dollars while making our streets safer. This is why the Task Force policy package received strong backing from the Governor and legislative leadership, and why the resulting legislation, HB 585, passed the House of Representatives this week with an overwhelming vote.
What the Task Force saw in our State’s data is that taxpayers across the state have not been getting a good return on our public safety investment. We have been paying more and more to imprison low-level, nonviolent offenders for longer and longer periods of time, only to see many of them repeat crimes upon release. Some of these offenders could be better managed with strict prison alternatives such as faith-based programs, or with shorter periods of incarceration followed by intensive supervision. We learned that the rising cost of locking up low-level offenders is cutting into our ability to house dangerous offenders, or to fund programs like drug courts and electronic monitoring, all of which have reduced drug use and victimization in Mississippi for years. Furthermore, if we fail to act our prisons will grow over the next ten years, costing taxpayers an additional $266 million.
The Task Force assembled a comprehensive, data-driven package of reforms that are both tough and smart on crime. HB 585 enhances penalties for serious drug dealers and repeat property offenders; it increases certainty in sentencing through “true minimums” for time served so that victims will actually know how long offenders will remain behind bars; and it also strengthens probation and parole supervision so that the 9,000 offenders leaving Mississippi prisons every year are held accountable and redirected toward law abiding lives.
HB 585 is currently before the state legislature, but let me be clear that it was developed with our local communities in mind. The bill includes specific policies to alleviate pressures on local jails, including a 21-day limit for probation and parole violators waiting in jail, on the county taxpayer dime, for a hearing. Currently, with no limit in place, counties across the state are paying millions a year for violator jail stays that average 45 days, with no state reimbursement. Additionally, county governments will, for the first time in recent memory, be directly reimbursed by the state for holding these probation and parole violators.
We all know that crime, victimization and drug use are local issues with local costs. This is why HB 585, which reduces both crime and costs, is so critical for the communities of Mississippi.
Finally, perhaps the best thing about HB 585 is that it creates an Oversight Task Force which will annually track success of these reforms determined by a primary measure – whether offenders return to a life of crime after release. Only then can we know taxpayers are getting the public safety return we deserve on our investment.
Rep. Andy Gipson