Ten years after the Legislature approved a rule requiring prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentences, lawmakers could send a bill to the governor that would allow inmates early release to control rising prison costs.
The bill has passed the House and is pending in the Senate Corrections Committee. It would give the governor emergency powers to advance parole dates up to 90 days for nonviolent offenders whenever the prison system capacity reaches 95 percent or when the Mississippi Department of Corrections experiences a deficit. The bill does not change the way inmates become eligible for parole.
"I can tell you, we're going to be in a deficit by August or September if we don't get additional money," said House Corrections Committee Chairman Bennett Malone, the bill's sponsor. The next fiscal year begins July 1.
The Corrections Department could be as much as $74 million below the $295 million MDOC Commissioner Chris Epps requested. The joint House and Senate budget office recommended $221 million, but Epps said more funding could be found before the session ends in the next few days.
"I have a lot of respect for Mr. Malone, but I don't expect to be in a deficit," Epps said. "Even at $221 million, I don't agree with that. We wouldn't be in a deficit that soon. I'm not going to recommend to the governor that we release anybody that's going to hurt the public."
Epps told lawmakers during budget talks MDOC would see a $27 million deficit at the end of the year, despite cutting about the same amount through reorganization and cost controls.
Housing prisoners has been a major strain on the state budget the 85-percent rule was passed in 1995. But lawmakers gradually have eased their get-tough-on-crime stance because of prison costs.
In his 25 years in the Legislature, Malone, D-Carthage, said prisons have reached the capacity threshold perhaps three times.
Epps said he has enough space to accommodate 22,196 prisoners, and the current inmate population is at 93.5 percent capacity, or 20,753 inmates at state-run and privately operated prisons and those held in county jails on contract. Of those, he said 2,500 had completed enough of their sentences to have received a release date.
"We're not going to turn around and release a bunch of inmates just because we got a deficit," Epps said.
Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Bunky Huggins, R-Greenwood, said his committee would review the bill Thursday. "We don't have a problem with it," Huggins said. "It's necessary."
Malone said he generally opposes releasing prisoners early, but he proposed the bill to avoid potential lawsuits.
"The judges sentence them, and I want them to stay there. But if you can't feed them or provide medical care -they are entitled to constitutional rights - then you're going to be looking at so many lawsuits," he said. "That's the only reason for this type of legislation."
House Bill 1734 would re-enact the Prison Overcrowding Emergency Powers Act, which was repealed last year. The law provided the emergency authority based on the capacity guidelines. The deficit guidelines would be new.
The House passed the bill 80-36 on March 8.
Rep. Rita Martinson, R-Madison, said she opposed the bill. "We had an incident in Ridgeland this past summer. These people slip through the cracks in the system enough as it is."
Martinson was referring to a man convicted in 2002 of armed robbery who had been on parole three months when he kidnapped and raped a woman along a popular jogging trail - a crime he later confessed to committing.
While the bill would not apply to violent offenders, Martinson said, "We don't need to make it easier for more to be released. It's our job to protect people."
Said Gov. Haley Barbour's spokesman, Pete Smith: "This is not part of the governor's legislative agenda."
The International Association of Chiefs of Police, based in Alexandria, Va., watches early release programs. John Firman, the organization's research director, said the national rate for recidivism is 65 percent.
"That is an outrageous rate," he said. "If there were no early releases, you'd still have offenders. If nobody changes anything you'd still have a problem, but certainly, there are a lot of offenders out there who are re-offending."
In 2004, the state Parole Board held 3,361 hearings and paroled 1,342 inmates.
The bill would allow the governor to advance the release date by 30 to 90 days, except for inmates incarcerated for less than a year. The parolees would wear electronic monitoring devices and be subject to parole guidelines.
Violent offenders, including those convicted of murder, kidnapping, arson, armed robbery, rape, sexual offenses, any offense involving a deadly weapon or those considered to be habitual criminals, would not be eligible for emergency release.
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