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MDOC seeks $21M budget increase

Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps told lawmakers on Monday his agency needs a $21 million budget increase next fiscal year to keep pace with the growing inmate population.

Epps, appearing before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, said there are currently 22,012 inmates in the state’s prison system. That number is expected to grow by nearly 1,000 next year.

MDOC’s budget request for fiscal year 2009 is $348.9 million. The money will cover operations at the state Penitentiary at Parchman, two other state prisons, the regional and private jails and community work and restitution centers. The agency’s budget for the current fiscal year is $327 million.

Epps said $50 million of next year’s budget request is earmarked for inmates’ medical services.

“The inmate is the only person that I’m aware of, and I’ve been doing this for 30-something years, that has a Constitutional right to medical care,” Epps said, explaining that the prison system has 261 HIV-infected inmates and 2,316 who are mentally ill.

The JLBC will hear from all state agencies over the next two weeks as they prepare to craft a spending plan to present to the entire House and Senate when the 2008 session starts in January. The new fiscal year begins July 1, 2008.

“It’s always challenging when agencies consistently ask for more money and they have a governor that’s saying that they need to work within their means and work within that money that’s on the table,” said state Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, a member of the budget committee.

Epps said the state’s truth-in-sentencing law is to blame for much of his budget’s increase. The law enacted in 1994 required offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before being considered for parole. The law was tweaked in 2001 to exempt nonviolent, first-time offenders.

“If they stay longer, they cost more, and that’s about where we are now,” Epps said.

Epps wants legislators to revisit the law in 2008, saying some property crimes should be reconsidered. He also recommended putting more inmates on house arrest, which is cheaper than incarceration, and creating more drug courts as an alternative to prison.

House Ways and Means Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said lawmakers should consider ways to reduce MDOC spending each year.

“It’s certainly a budget that’s necessary to provide security for our population. But it’s starting to take away from other budgets,” said Watson said.

This is a lame duck Joint Legislative Budget Committee. Three lawmakers on the 14-member committee — Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, the chairwoman; and Sens. Travis Little, R-Corinth, and Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point — won’t be around when the new Legislature convenes in January.

Term limits prevented Tuck from running for re-election. Little is retiring, and Robertson was defeated in the Aug. 7 primary.

Five of the remaining members — three senators and two House members — have no opposition in the Nov. 6 general election.