Prison Reform makes Mississippi Safer
By Pat Nolan
Most conservatives believe government's top priority should be public safety. We also know government is often inefficient and that other states have shown that we can be smarter about how we fight crime and punish criminals, using proven practices that make better use of taxpayer dollars.
Unfortunately Mississippi’s prison system was costing much and providing low returns in terms of public safety. In 2014 Gov. Bryant, Lt, Gov. Reeves, House Speaker Gunn and Chief Justice Walker joined to remedy this situation. They championed the most comprehensive criminal justice reform legislation in the history of the state. Tired of the failing state prison system, state policymakers rallied around a sentencing and corrections reform package grounded in the research about what has been proven to work to hold offenders accountable and reduce recidivism.
And it worked. In the first two years since the reforms, Mississippi's prison population fell 5 percent even as crime rates continued to decline. After implementing best practices in probation supervision, success rates (the rate at which offenders make it through their probation terms without reoffending) increased 10 percentage points. The state is on track to save a minimum of $264 million in corrections spending over the next 10 years. All of this means that Mississippi taxpayers are getting more public safety at less cost.
Mississippi could have stopped there. But this past session, the Legislature unanimously passed House Bill 1033, which was designed to expand the evidence-based approaches in the 2014 criminal justice reforms and help even more offenders return to the community as good neighbors. Championed by Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, HB 1033 expands parole eligibility to additional nonviolent offenders and ensures technical violations of probation and parole are responded to swiftly, certainly, and proportionally. It also implements a more commonsense approach to criminal justice fees and fines, working with offenders on reasonable payment plans and ensuring that failure to pay fees for minor civil infractions doesn’t land them back in jail. Too often, a parking ticket can snowball into a stint in jail causing a lost job, unnecessary incarceration, a broken family and further debt that undermines the offender’s chances for success and also depletes the state’s coffers.
As a member of the conservative Right on Crime campaign, I applaud Mississippi’s steady commitment to criminal justice reform. At Right on Crime, we believe all government spending programs must be put to the cost-benefit test, and criminal justice is no exception.
With this bill, Mississippi remains at the fore of a cohort of Southern states including Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas that are using data and evidence to guide sentencing and corrections policies and taxpayer investments. These states are building a legacy of criminal justice reform, year after year making steady progress to keep Mississippians safe and taxes down. And just as important, Mississippi serves as an example to other states of how conservative principles can work to solve society’s most vexing problems.
The state’s citizens should be proud of this work by the governor and legislative leaders and encourage Mississippi’s policy makers to continue working to improve sentencing and corrections policies so they provide the greatest public safety return for taxpayer spending.
Pat Nolan is director of the American Conservative Union Foundation Center on Criminal Justice Reform and a member of the Right on Crime coalition. More on Pat can be found here.