Most of the news recently about Mississippi’s Department of Corrections has been not just negative but deeply disturbing. The state’s prison system has allegedly been rank with corruption, starting with its former commissioner, Chris Epps. He is under indictment for allegedly taking more than $1 million in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for prison contracts. There are also allegations of guards being as crooked as the inmates. They have been accused of trafficking in contraband, abetting violent attacks by gang members on other inmates, and shaking down inmates’ families for “protection” money.
Amid this dark news, though, has come a hopeful report: The inmate population is down.
According to The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, as of late last month, the state’s prison population was just under 19,000 inmates — a 13 percent decrease from the same time a year ago.
That’s a welcome trend for several reasons.
Mississippi has been locking up way too many offenders, propelling this state to the second highest incarceration rate in the nation, behind only Louisiana.
This “lock ’em up” mentality has been expensive, making corrections one of the fastest-growing categories of state spending for the past couple of decades. For a change, according to MDOC officials, the agency should end the current budget year with a surplus rather than running short of money, which was often the case while Epps was in charge. (His alleged graft might have had something to do with that.)
Incarceration also can be counterproductive when it comes to dealing with non-violent offenders, especially those whose crimes are a consequence of addiction. Mixing them with hardened criminals for a long stretch of time can make these low-risk offenders worse when they get out, not better.
Marshall Fisher, the new corrections commissioner, attributes the decline in inmate numbers to greater use of parole for nonviolent offenders and of house arrest.
Alternatives to incarceration are much cheaper than manning and maintaining prisons. They are also more likely to produce the rehabilitation that society hopes to achieve.
There will always be a need for prison space to house violent or incorrigible offenders, but the goal should be to reserve that space for the criminals that truly pose the greatest risk to society. For too long, Mississippi has made incarceration its default punishment, regardless of the felony committed.
It’s good to see the state showing more discretion in that regard.