An Alabama senator who weighed in over the weekend on Mississippi’s prison crisis acknowledges he was prodded into it by a national group unhappy with Gov. Tate Reeves’ veto last month of a bill designed to reduce the state’s terribly high incarceration rate.
Nevertheless, Sen. Cam Ward’s message, delivered in an op-ed column in this past weekend’s Clarion Ledger newspaper, should be heeded.
The Republican chairman of the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee tells his neighbors in Mississippi that they better learn from Alabama’s example, or they will come to regret it.
Just as Mississippi is now, Alabama has been under a federal investigation of its prison system since 2016 because of overcrowding, understaffing and inhuman living conditions. The Alabama Legislature dragged its feet on addressing the issues, and now that state is looking at the prospect of a takeover of the prison system by federal judges, whose remedies, according to Ward, could include billions of dollars in expenditures on additional prison space and guards.
Mississippi, with an even higher incarceration rate than Alabama’s and nearly identical prison problems, could be next in line for expensive federal intervention, Ward warns. “Take my word, (Mississippi) can and should act now to avoid having its own Department of Justice investigation turn into a costly federal consent decree.”
Unlike Alabama, the majority of Mississippi lawmakers seemed to get the point when they adopted this year Senate Bill 2123 by a bipartisan vote.
Most significantly, the bill proposed to standardize parole guidelines that lawmakers had adopted six years ago for new inmates. Senate Bill 2123 said that, regardless of when nonviolent offenders were sentenced, they would be eligible for parole after completing 25% of their sentence. For violent offenders, except for those convicted of the most heinous crimes, such as capital murder or rape, parole eligibility would generally begin after they completed 50% of their sentence. Currently, these parole guidelines only apply to those sentenced since 2014. Those sentenced prior to 2014 have to wait longer for consideration.
It was estimated that the bill would make around 2,000 additional inmates eligible for parole while saving about $45 million per year in corrections costs.
The bill, though sponsored by a group of Democrat senators, had conservative backing from a number of GOP legislators as well as from a handful of conservative groups, which now agree that warehousing too many offenders for too long is hard on taxpayers and produces little in the way of rehabilitation. One of those groups disappointed by Reeves’ veto was the Texas-based group Right on Crime, which had asked Ward to share with Mississippi his thoughts and Alabama’s experience.
There are probably not enough votes in the Legislature to override Reeves’ veto, but Ward’s message should make lawmakers consider it.
The Alabama senator is absolutely right. The prison problems are going to eventually catch up with Mississippi, if they haven’t already. The state can either be proactive to try to avert federal control, or they can wait for the Justice Department to dictate a solution.
Just hiring an experienced corrections chief, as Reeves has done with Burl Cain, is not going to be enough. Cain can try to reduce the chaos in the prison system, but he can’t reduce one of the main factors contributing to that chaos — high inmate numbers. That direction has to come from lawmakers and the governor.
The Legislature showed it was on board. Reeves needs to come along.