In the last decade Mississippi’s prison population has grown by 17 percent, topping 22,600 inmates in July.
The state has the second highest imprisonment rate in the nation, costing taxpayers $339 million last year.
If laws and policies do not change, prison expenditures will increase by $266 million over the next decade.
“We cannot continue down the path we are on. By enacting these policies we will improve public safety by keeping violent and career criminals behind bars, putting the appropriate resources into alternatives for nonviolent offenders, and ensuring our citizens get the best results for their tax dollars," said Gov. Phil Bryant at a press conference in Jackson.
According to Bolivar County Warden Ora Starks, she agrees with Bryant and she is working earnestly to provide nonviolent offenders with alternative forms of punishment or rehabilitation.
"If you try to decrease the number of individuals entering prison for nonviolent crimes it will be a very good thing but it all ultimately depends on the approach that you wish to take," said Starks
Mississippi has a number of alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders: non-adjudicated probation, probation and house arrest.
Non-adjudicated probation is a period of probation that, if successfully completed, results in expungement and no felony record.
Probation is a sentence of community supervision and house arrest, which allows offenders to remain in their community under electronic monitoring.
Current statutory restrictions limit judges’ discretion to impose non-prison sentences that often may be more effective at reducing repeat offenses.
"I have been meeting with various entities to start vocational programs at our facility that will save the state some tax dollars and possibly deter inmates from becoming repeat offenders," she added.
According to Starks, one alternative method currently in place is drug court.
"If we continue to populate our prisons with nonviolent offenders, we are going to get back into a situation that we were once in — overcrowding of prisons," Starks said.
Over the last decade Mississippi has developed an expansive drug court system and now has a drug court in every circuit.
However, current law restricts many nonviolent offenders whose criminal activity is driven by substance abuse/addiction and who would benefit from a highly regimented drug court program.
In December, the state Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force announced a comprehensive set of policy recommendations for the upcoming legislative session that will increase criminal penalties for some serious offenders and steer lower-level offenders into drug courts and other prison alternatives.
The Task Force was charged with developing policies that improve public safety, ensure clarity in sentencing, and control corrections costs.
Beginning in June 2013, the Task Force analyzed the state’s corrections and criminal justice systems, including an exhaustive review of sentencing, corrections, and community supervision data.
"Crime is a very hot topic and safety is important too. We really have to be mindful of how we actually approach this situation because I think that we want to make sure that we are doing the right thing for public safety as a whole," she continued.
According to Bryant, if policies do not change, Mississippi’s prison population is projected to grow by 1,990 inmates over the next decade.
These added inmates would cost taxpayers an additional $266 million in the next 10 years, including the costs of opening a previously closed facility.
"I am sure that this situation has always been considered but now it is currently being looked at more closely," she said.
"Are we going to utilize alternative programs instead of sentencing them to prison? That is definitely a huge umbrella and I think that every aspect has to be explored," added Starks.
Starks said that she believes Mississippi is moving towards lowering the number of incarcerated nonviolent offenders and that our legislature is going to work hard and affectively to do what is best for crime and public safety.