When Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, signed House Bill 585 into law in 2014, the measure drew widespread praise from conservatives and liberals alike because it promised to reduce the prison population, save millions and reinvest some of the money into programs for offenders.
Instead, all of those savings have gone back into the state’s coffers, helping to pay for huge corporate tax cuts at a time the state was struggling to meet revenue estimates.
Over five years, the Mississippi Department of Corrections spent $185 million less in total than it would have had its budget remained at the level it was in 2014. The department’s $347 million budget for the coming fiscal year is $30 million less than it was in 2014.
Meanwhile, the number of prisoners is creeping back up, and the lack of funding and staff is contributing to worsening conditions.
Experts say Mississippi provides a cautionary tale for the nation as it implements the First Step Act.
Emptying prisons of offenders “without treating their addiction, without mental health treatment and without job training is really irresponsible,” said Pat Nolan, director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, which campaigned for passage of the state and federal legislation.
The prison population has begun to tick back up, from 18,964 in January 2018 to 19,697 last week, largely due to probation and parole revocations putting offenders back behind bars. If current trends continue, Mississippi will have more inmates in 2020 than it did before the reform became law.
“The good news is it’s not as high as it was in 2014,” Parole Board Chairman Steve Pickett said. “But to quote President Reagan, ‘Are we better off than we were four years ago?’ Do we have more parole and probation officers? Do we have more prison guards?”
The answer, data shows, is no.
In 2014, the Corrections Department had 1,591 correctional officers, according to the state Personnel Board. Now there are 772, fewer than half as many.
In 2014, the department had 23 vocational education instructors. Now there are 15.
In 2014, there were three vocational counselors. Now there are two.
In 2014, there were 319 probation officers, according to the state Personnel Board. Now there are 257.
A district attorney for five counties in south central Mississippi, said said unless the state starts investing in reentry programs, offenders are destined to return to prison.
“Here we are, releasing them into the same neighborhood, with no skill sets at all, and expecting a different outcome,” he said. “That’s the definition of insanity.”