More than 1,000 inmates have joined Mississippi's increasing prison population in the last two years.
That's raising costs for the Department of Corrections, which is already operating on a $339million dollar budget. MDOC is facing a $30 million deficit this year, in part, because more prisoners are behind bars. As expected, the cash strapped legislature is having a tough time finding the funds needed to pay for those inmates.
MDOC Commissioner Chris Epps says finding a new way to punish non-violent, first time offenders could save the state money.
"Basically we over 50% of drug (5,769) and property (6,219) offenders. And again prison first and foremost is for those that we are afraid of, who are violent, who are dangerous," Epps said.
He believes expanding GPS electronic monitoring is one solution. Seven-hundred convicts are already monitored with GPS, another 1,100 are monitored with a radio frequency. However, a state law stands in the way of expanding the GPS program.
"There's been some conversation about a second time confinement for house arrest. Today the law is if you have ever been convicted of a nonviolent crime, you can't ever be placed on house arrest. There's been some conversation about a second time confinement," Epps said.
"It makes no sense to us to continue to spend $40 a day to incarcerate when we can do $10 or $15 a day through electronic monitoring and still keep the public safe," said State House Corrections Chairman George Flaggs.
He would like to see a comprehensive approach including education reform.
House Speaker Phillip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves both support a change in the classroom to prevent a prison pipeline.
"This highlights the importance of education package we're bringing forward to try to curb the increasing prison population and hopefully illuminate that or reduce that in the years to come," Gunn said.
Epps and Flaggs agree.
"One of the ways to reduce incarceration on the front end is to put emphasis on early childhood education. Put an emphasis on reading writing and Math and science," Flaggs said.
"A better educated person is less likely to come to prison, a better educated person is less likely to need Medicare or Medicaid or food stamps," added Epps.
The long-time commissioner says most inmates come into the prison system with a sixth grade education.
Epps says the state should also expand drug court in order to reduce the prison population.
"We've got about 3,000 on drug court now and we need to continue to grow the program. A person that has a problem with drugs I don't see what good it do to send them to Parchman. We need to try to cure them off drugs," Epps said.
Epps says nearly 75 percent of inmates in MDOC custody have a drug or alcohol problem.
Epps says MDOC's projected budget for next year is $368 million dollars. Included in that price tag is an additional 600 prisoners who cost the state $41.51 a day/per inmate.
MDOC has found ways to reduce costs by growing food and making inmate jumpsuits.
Per capita, Mississippi has the second highest incarceration rate in the country. Despite those numbers, according to Epps, the state has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country at 52 percent over a three year period.
Flaggs says he is crafting a bill that will address how to save money in prisons and the criminal system structure.
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