Prison reform steps emulated

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, February 9, 2016

By Sid Salter

A quick fact — Mississippi has a rate of incarceration that sees 1,120 inmates jailed per 100,000 of the state’s 3 million residents. That dwarfs the U.S incarceration rate of 716 inmates jailed per 100,000 population, which is the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

But while high, Mississippi’s incarceration rate is lower than states like Oklahoma (1,310 per 100,000) and Louisiana (1,380 per 100,000). That’s due to some relatively enlightened changes in recent years by the Mississippi Legislature and the Department of Corrections that don’t have as much to do with “liberal” policies on crime and punishment as it does with fiscal responsibility.

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In the days since Mississippi “got tough on crime” by implementing mandatory minimum prison sentences and other strategies that resulted in bloated and expensive system of corrections in Mississippi, several things have changed.

New laws. Federal indictments. Prison condition lawsuits. ACLU challenges. 

But back in 1995, Mississippi lawmakers followed national trends in attempting to “get tough on crime.” In doing so, the lawmakers also dramatically increased the state’s prison population and therefore the operating costs of the state prison system.

The Legislature adopted the so-called “85 percent rule” which mandated that all state convicts must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for parole. Mississippi’s law was in sharp contrast to other states, where the 85 percent rule applied only to violent offenders.

The law had tremendous impact. On June 30, 1993, the Mississippi Department of Corrections had 9,629 prisoners with a capacity of 9,164. By the end of 1998, the figures jumped to 16,695 and 16,007, respectively.

By 1999’s election year, calls were widespread to relax the 85 percent rule because of the staggering increase in prison costs and the burgeoning prison population. The law was eventually amended in 2014 to make certain first-time, nonviolent offenders eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentences.

In 2015, Mississippi also adopted the concept of “presumptive parole” which created a presumption that a prisoner would not be a menace to society or public safety, and would have to be released upon serving his or her minimum sentence, if the prisoner scored a high probability of parole based on established parole guidelines.

In other words, it took the politics and emotion out of the parole process. The Michigan Legislature is considering similar policies that the Michigan Department of Corrections estimates will save the state as much as $82 million.

Clearly, with Mississippi facing critical needs in public education at all levels, transportation, economic development and other key areas, reducing costs in corrections should be a high priority if it can be accomplished without compromising public safety.

The development of more fiscally responsible corrections policies in the state coincides with an ongoing federal probe of corruption within the Mississippi public and private prison systems.

U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate recently delayed sentencing hearings that had been set for former Commissioner Christopher Epps, Brandon businessman Cecil McCrory and Carthage prison phone consultant Sam Waggoner.

Epps pleaded guilty in February to two felony bribery counts, while McCrory pleaded guilty to one count. Prosecutors say the two were at the center of a bribery scheme that eventually resulted in Epps collecting $1.5 million in bribes from McCrory and others.

Epps faces up to 23 years in prison and fines of $750,000. He has agreed to forfeit $2 million in assets. McCrory faces up to 20 years and fines of $500,000. He has agreed to forfeit $1.7 million in assets. Waggoner faces up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines and also has agreed to forfeit $200,000.

The aspect of the state’s corrections system that still requires state attention is the private prison system. Too many questions remain about how those facilities factor into the state’s operation of a more fiscally responsible corrections system.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at