Epps: Corrections budget could grow by at least $20 M each year

Published 4:23 pm Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Mississippi Department of Corrections expects housing costs to rise about $20 million a year, the amount needed to provide beds and buildings for an inmate population increasing by 1,000 prisoners annually, Commissioner Chris Epps said.

Epps said Wednesday that he is working on a budget proposal that has to be submitted by Aug. 1, a step all state agencies are taking so lawmakers can start preparing a budget for the year that starts nearly 11 months from now.

Mississippi’s inmate population has experienced enormous growth since the “truth in sentencing” laws were enacted in 1994. That year, prison spending was $109.6 million. Epps’ budget for the current fiscal year that began July 1 is $327 million.

The “truth in sentencing” laws require all inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole.

Mississippi’s prison population was 22,047 as of Wednesday.

Epps said he’ll go before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in September, “and I will be asking for an increase.”

One thousand new inmates requires $20 million, he said. The Legislature would have to appropriate the money.

Epps said there’s little he can do about inmate population growth until legislators make changes to the state laws.

Epps said he would like to see more first-time offenders paroled sooner. He also recommends a change to a state law that requires a terminally ill inmate to serve at least one year in prison.

“If a person is terminally ill, why do they have to serve a year? They’re going to be under the supervision of corrections if they’re on medical release or house arrest,” Epps said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, said the state needs to find more economical ways to house inmates.

“Of course, we’ve got to incarcerate the people who are convicted,” Gordon said Wednesday.

Gordon said in 2008 lawmakers will take another look at the 85 percent law, which was tweaked in 2001 to exempt nonviolent, first-time offenders.

The Senate in 2007 passed a bill that would exempt all first-time offenders convicted of crimes that didn’t involve bodily harm, but the legislation died in the House.

“It being an election year, a lot of legislators asked me not to make them vote on this issue,” said House Corrections Chairman Bennett Malone, D-Carthage.

Malone said some proposals that will be proffered in 2008 include a prerelease program. Currently, inmates who have served their sentence but have no physical address in Mississippi cannot be released. Malone said there are 140 inmates with that status.

He’s proposing that the state build or lease a facility that would house those prisoners and provide jobs for them.

“They would get paid the prevailing wage of that job. We would take out their room and board,” Malone said.

Another proposal would allow severely ill or terminally ill inmates who cannot commit crimes to be released to their homes, Malone said.

Meanwhile, Epps said there’s no prison crowding problem within the system.

On Aug. 1, 400 beds will be opened at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville. By the fall, the Bolivar County Correctional Facility and the Leake County Correctional Facility will each open 75 beds, Epps said.

“I feel we are in good shape for the growth in fiscal year 2008,” Epps said.