Corrections chief presents his budget

Published 11:30 pm Monday, September 24, 2012

Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps likes numbers and he had plenty this past week when he appeared before legislative budget writers.

— Mississippi leads the nation in locking people up at a rate of 686 inmates per 100,000 residents, based on 2010 figures. The national average is 439.

— Mississippi is leader in average prison sentences, at 6.05 years compared to a national average of 5.42 years.

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— The state system has more than 22,000 people in custody and 39,000 under supervision.

— 78 percent of the inmates use alcohol or drugs and many committed crimes while under the influence or to feed a habit.

— The Mississippi Department of Corrections needs about $30 million as soon as possible cover a deficit this year, and that’s before lawmakers start looking at new budget figures for the fiscal year that begins next July 1.

“There’s nothing in this deficit that we can do without in terms of public safety,” Epps told members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Epps said he’s under a federal court order to move youthful offenders 17 and younger into a separate facility at the prison in Rankin County. The move will require some renovations and more staff.

He said a population growth of 1,126 inmates over the past year requires more corrections officers.

There also is about $3.3 million in repair work needed at various facilities.

And dormant Unit 32, which once housed death row and mentally ill inmates in conditions that prisoner advocates described as inhumane, may have to be reopened, Epps said. He is asking for money to make repairs.

The unit, which was shuttered in January 2011, once held 1,000 men, from gang leaders to petty thieves to mentally ill inmates. Prisoners were kept in isolation 23 hours a day, often behind full metal doors in stifling cells with broken lights, yet violence was common between inmates and guards and among the inmates themselves.

Corrections officials removed the inmates as part of a settlement in a 2005 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Epps’ numbers on average sentence length and average length of stay in the prison system led to a discussion of how judges sentence those convicted in their courts.

Epps said Mississippi is not alone in struggling to pay for growing prisoner populations. He said California has gone so far as to reduce some crimes considered felonies to misdemeanors. He said other states have reduced sentences for some felonies.

“I am not suggesting we do that,” Epps said.

Epps said — and some lawmakers agreed — that sentences handed down by judges are not consistent across the state. He said the Legislature might consider sentencing guidelines, or standards for judges to follow — similar to what’s used in federal courts.

While the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sentencing guidelines in 2005, federal judges still calculate the sentence based on the old guidelines, with numerical values given for factors such as the seriousness of the offense and the defendant’s criminal record. Judges are not bound by the result.

The disparity in sentencing in Mississippi, said Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, should be reviewed by lawyers, judges and others. He said while sentencing guidelines are probably not desirable, some changes could be made.

Epps said some relief has come through earned time off sentences and medical leave, but more could be done.

“We’ve kind of kicked the can down the road. We’ve just got to look at different things,” Epps said.

House Corrections Chairman George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said he and Judiciary B Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, will get their committees together in October to look at sentencing and other issues.