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Parole system tweaks effective

With the state’s 2011 general election just around the corner, incumbent state legislators have a success story to tell voters on the issue their role in the management of the state’s sentencing laws and the state’s parole system.

To be sure, a great deal of the credit goes to Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps and to Gov. Haley Barbour for gains made in this critical function of state government, but the Legislature’s role in shaping these issues should not be understated.

In a state that has a historical record of being tough on crime, Mississippi joined a host of states around the country in adopting so-called “truth-in-sentencing” or mandatory minimum laws in 1995 that required all inmates sentenced to felony time in the state penitentiary system — violent and non-violent offenders alike — after July 1, 1995, to serve 85 percent their term before they could even be considered for parole. The rationale was that longer, tougher prison sentences would be a deterrent to crime.

There were other factors for adoption of the law as well. First, lawmakers were scrambling to help the state qualify for federal funding under a federal crime bill. Second, lawmakers had grown frustrated with erratic discretionary swings by former Parole Boards between periods of tough and then lax parole standards. That brought pressure on lawmakers to stabilize paroles. Many believed the “truth-in-sentencing law” would accomplish that.

Finally, “truth-in-sentencing” rode to passage on the cycle of both rising overall  FBI index crime (murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft) rates and rising violent crime rates in the decade prior to legislative adoption of the law. Public support for adoption of the law was vocal and solid.

But the unintended consequences of the law were alarming. Mississippi’s prison population soared from 12,292 at the end of the 1995 fiscal year to 31,031 at the end of the 2005 fiscal year. A recent National Conference of State Legislatures report called “Principles of Effective State Sentencing and Corrections Policy outlines the broader impact:

“Mississippi’s state prison population more than doubled and corrections cost increased three-fold following passage of a 1995 truth-in-sentencing law … .To deal with swelling prison populations and costs, the Mississippi Legislature twice increased the amount of good-time that low-level offenders were eligible to earn and reinstated parole eligibility for certain non-violent offenders. In 2008, lawmakers reinstated discretionary parole at 25 percent of the sentence for inmates convicted of non-violent crimes who have no violent history.”

Those moves, coupled with a state Parole Board risk assessment screening process, kept the state from having to build additional prisons at a time of fiscal crisis. The NCSL report indicated that of some 3,100 state offenders paroled during that process, only 121 were returned to prison — 116 for parole violations and only five for new crimes.

Had the Legislature not been willing to adapt and balance the TIS laws, the current fiscal crunch at all levels of state government would have been even more problematic. The TIS laws and the Legislature’s adaptation of tweaks has also stabilized the state’s Parole Board and made that process far less arbitrary and erratic.

The state’s prison system remains an expensive, volatile function of state government. Problems remain, but in terms of reacting in a nimble and progressive manner to needed changes in state sentencing laws and the parole process, the Legislature deserves a tip of the hat from the taxpayers.

(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com)