Growth in Corrections budget saga won't go
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON - The growth in the Corrections budget is getting to be an old story with no apparent ending.
Every year before the legislative session starts, members talk about trying to curb the rapid growth in the Corrections budget. As legislators prepare to begin the 2001 session Jan. 2, they again are talking about ways to curtail the growth in the budget for the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
The Legislature actually slowed the growth in Corrections slightly during the 2000 session. But the budget proposal adopted by legislative leaders for the upcoming session re-establishes the trend upward in the amount of state money going to house convicted felons.
Legislative leaders say several factors force them to continue the upward spiral in Corrections spending.
"If there is one thing that irks me, it is money going to the Department of Corrections,'' House Speaker Tim Ford, D-Baldwyn, said recently. "It is lost money. ...You are not putting it in economic development. You are not putting it in education.
"... It is money that is a necessity, but it is not going to our future.''
The story is all-too familiar. In the 1990s, the budget for the Department of Corrections has been one of the fastest growing in state government.
Sen. Bill Thames, D-Mize, points out the budget for the Mississippi Department of Corrections is growing 10 times the national average. Ford added that six years ago the state had about 7,000 beds; now it has more than 16,000 with more beds costing additional money scheduled to be opened.
As the beds open, they are quickly filled.
Why the dramatic increase?
Most cite two reasons. One is a lawsuit filed by prisoners. The federal lawsuit has forced Corrections officials to move convicted felons out of county jails that have not been certified to house state inmates. Plus, in 1995, the Legislature passed a law requiring all inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for parole.
The result is that Mississippi has one of the toughest truth in sentencing laws in the nation. And another result is that since the legislation was passed and signed into law by then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, some have been talking about the need to change the law to save the state money.
Last year the Legislature came the closest yet to changing it. A proposal that would have exempted certain non-violent offenses from the truth in sentencing law passed the House, but died during the final days of the session in the Senate. Senate Judiciary Chairman Bennie Turner, D-West Point, a supporter of changing the law, did not call it up for consideration because he didn't think he had the votes to pass it.
House Penitentiary Chairman Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, has said he plans to try again during the upcoming session to pass a bill to exempt certain non- violent offenders from the truth in sentencing law.
But Malone may not get far.
Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, D-Maben, who presides over the Senate, said she doubts the Senate would want to address the issue because "in all honesty, no one wants to be seen as soft on crime.''
Still, Tuck said there are other things that can be done. She joined Sen. Thames in a news conference earlier this month where he unveiled a "Recidivism Reduction Program.'' Tuck and Thames said they believe the long-term program will reduce the Corrections budget.
The proposal would call together various state agencies to work to enhance counseling and job training programs and eventually jobs placement for inmates. Tuck admitted that many of the specifics of the program have not been worked out, but stressed she believes it can make a difference.
"I think there has to be some relief in the Corrections budget,'' Ford said. "... I think we have to have more house arrest, give judges more alternatives in sentencing. I think the work programs are going well.''
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove also said "there are some other options and proposals that would allow the Parole Board and the Department of Corrections more leeway than reducing the 85 percent law. It appears the political will is not there to eliminate the 85 percent law.''
Musgrove said Corrections Commissioner Robert Johnson would be working with legislators on some of those proposals during the upcoming session.
While the Corrections budget has been growing faster than the budget for any other state agency during much of the 1990s, the funding for the department actually was reduced last year by $1.7 million.
And in his budget plan, the governor has proposed another $12.2 million reduction for the agency for the upcoming fiscal year, which will begin July 1. In the budget recommendation of legislative leaders, they have proposed a $19.6 million increase for the upcoming year budget, recognizing the need to fund new beds that are being opened.
While Ford said Musgrove's proposal to spend less on Corrections and more on education is "laudable,'' the House speaker said he does not know if the agency "can get by'' on the amount proposed by the governor.