Cutting prison population in half could save Mississippi millions of dollars; report details how

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Slashing Mississippi’s prison population in half could save the state $350 million by the year 2025, according to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Such a task may seem daunting, but the report, titled “Blueprint for Smart Justice,” provides a calculated set of reforms across the state’s criminal offense categories — and their resultant policy outcomes, prison population impacts and cost savings.

And if the state carried them out, some 8,700 fewer people might be imprisoned across Mississippi, per the report’s authors.

As of this year, the state houses 19,000-plus inmates, per daily population counts.

The report is one of 50 “blueprints” the ACLU is producing for every state in conjunction with the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute through a two-year research project aimed at both reducing prison populations and racial disparities within prisons across the country.

Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today.

Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the ACLU Mississippi, shown here in a 2016 file photo.

“While recent reforms over the last few years has reduced Mississippi’s prison population, the state ranks third in the country for the number of people we lock up every day,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director, in a statement.

“This addiction to prison is ruining families and communities and costing taxpayers about $330 million in corrections costs,” Riley-Collins said. “To get to better outcomes for the criminal justice system in Mississippi, we must take a different approach and divert resources toward education, infrastructure, and economic stimulation.”

The state’s prison population has grown 392 percent since 1980, the report finds.

Other key findings include significant racial disparities among prisoners — though black men make up 34 percent of Mississippi’s male population, they make up 65 percent of the prison population. The report also states that drug offenses are a “leading driver” in the state’s high incarceration rates.

In recent years, Mississippi has passed two rounds of criminal justice reform law — in 2014, the state legislature passed a sweeping overhaul of the system, leading to a drop in the prison population, and this year, lawmakers broadened parole eligibility for people sentenced for nonviolent crimes.

But the report recommends further tweaking, if not drastically changing, sentencing policies and adding more alternatives to incarceration, including:

• Reforming bail, evaluating of prosecutorial practices, reforming sentencing for burglary offenses, and increasing access to alternatives for incarceration for drug-related offenses

• Reducing low-level drug and property offenses to misdemeanors

• Comprehensively reforming the state’s extreme minimum and maximum sentencing laws and sentence enhancements for people with prior convictions

But merely reducing prison populations won’t solve racial disparities within the system, the report’s authors point out. That work requires “implementing explicit racial justice strategies,” such as ending over policing in communities of color, reducing the use of pretrial detention, and moving funding from law enforcement and corrections to social service providers like schools, job creation agencies and drug and mental health treatment providers.

It’s a solution reliant upon the state’s voters, policy makers, communities, and criminal justice advocates, as the report notes — and one that can be tweaked or tailored with an interactive tool developed so stakeholders can chart their own paths toward criminal justice reform.

The ACLU’s Mississippi branch aims to hold a briefing on the report “in the coming weeks,” according to a statement released Wednesday. Mississippi Today was given an advance copy of the report.