JACKSON — A criminal justice task force meets Wednesday to finalize its report on proposals to overhaul the state’s corrections system and cut ballooning costs.
The proposals will be presented to lawmakers in January.
The task force is led by Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps. It will meet at the state Capitol in Jackson.
The Clarion-Ledger reports proposals include increasing the threshold from $500 to $1,000 for felony theft; lowering drug sentences for possession or trafficking of small amounts; and creating “true minimums” for when violent and nonviolent offenders are eligible for release.
While the nationwide trend has been lower prison populations, Mississippi’s has skyrocketed since it passed some of the toughest “truth in sentencing” laws in the 1990s. The state now has more than 22,600 prisoners and the second highest incarceration rate in the nation. Prison costs have risen from $276 million in 2003 to $361 million, with unchecked growth expected to cost taxpayers another $266 million over the next 10 years.
House Corrections Chairman Tommy Taylor, R-Boyle, said he expects the Legislature to work on reforms for the next few years. Taylor serves on the task force.
“But even if nothing happened legislatively, getting this group together and talking — judges, prosecutors, victims’ rights people — has been a really good thing,” Taylor said.
Taylor said among proposal being considered include:
■ Giving judges more discretion to impose non-prison sentences. It would allow most drug offenses to be eligible for non-adjudicated probation, except for trafficking. Judges could impose probation on any case deemed appropriate with the exception of sex offenses and those with a maximum sentence of death or life in prison.
■ Increasing the felony theft property value threshold from $500 to $1,000 and establishing tiered property values for sentencing. Currently, the theft of $2,000 of property is treated the same as theft of $50,000, and the sentencing system leads to wide disparity in penalties for similar crimes. Property crime imprisonment has grown 44 percent since 2002.
■ Narrowing sentence ranges for drug possession, to reduce imprisonment of low-level offenders and creating trafficking sentences based on the weight of the drugs being sold. Currently, someone selling 1 gram of cocaine faces the same sentence as someone selling 40 grams. In 2012, 32 percent of those imprisoned were a result of drug crimes, compared to 24 percent from violent offenses.
■ Expanding eligibility for drug court, which has shown progress in reducing recidivism and further substance abuse. This will require more funding. The Legislature cut drug court funding 42 percent for fiscal 2014.
■ Instituting 25 percent and 50 percent “true miniumum” sentences. This would ensure nonviolent offenders are not released before serving 25 percent of original sentences and violent offenders not released before serving 50 percent.
■ Allowing the use of house arrest as a sentencing option.