The 2014 Mississippi law designed to reduce the prison population and save money accomplished those goals, but District Attorney Dee Bates said it has had less desirable effects too.
Bates, the DA for Pike, Walthall and Lincoln counties, spoke to the McComb Rotary Club on Wednesday. He said the biggest change in the 2014 law reduced prison time for non-violent crimes to 25 percent of the sentence. For violent-crime convictions, the law reduced time behind bars to 50 percent of the sentence. The law replaced “truth-in-sentencing” legislation from the 1990s, which required almost all convicts to serve 85 percent of their sentence. With inmates being held longer, the state’s prison population swelled, and the cost of corrections rose rapidly.
Bates said there were 12,061 inmates in the state’s three largest prisons in June 2014, right before the new law took effect. Within two years that number had dropped by about 2,000 inmates, and this month the three facilities held 9,339 prisoners — a decrease of 2,722 (23%) in less than six years.
He said it costs the state about $18,200 a year to keep someone in prison. That means the 2014 law is saving the state about $49 million a year in corrections expenses.
Bates said he understands the reasoning behind releasing more prisoners sooner, but he lamented, “They get out, a lot of times, more quickly than we can get them in.”
He believes people convicted of violent crimes should have to serve more than 50 percent of their sentence, though he did not list a specific number. But he noted that people in prison have no way to pay court-ordered reimbursements, which is something many crime victims want. Getting more inmates out of jail and into a job where some of their pay can be steered to restitution is a worthwhile goal.
Even so, the ability to get restitution from convicts is limited. “It’s a sad situation, but that’s where we are,” Bates said.
He dislikes other changes in the state’s criminal laws, especially the decision to increase the value of stolen goods to $1,000 before it becomes a felony crime of grand larceny. Previously it took the theft of only $500 to make the crime a felony, and Bates believes the higher limit encourages shoplifters to steal more.
He said the state went even lighter on thieves when it dropped the law that made a person’s third shoplifting arrest a felony, meaning the sentence could include prison time. That also encourages shoplifters, who know they’ll never face a serious charge.
Bates said the Legislature should consider restoring the third-offense felony shoplifting charge, or make the fourth offense a felony.
The 2014 law, in his opinion, passed more of the criminal justice expenses from the state to cities and counties. It also reduced civil forfeiture proceedings, which allowed the state to confiscate assets of criminals and provided funding for law enforcement.
“You hear a couple of horror stories, and all of a sudden you can’t take money that was obtained illegally,” he observed.