While Mississippi has been a leader since 2014 in its efforts to reform the criminal justice system and reduce the state’s prison population, a spate of recent deaths in the state’s prisons have led to calls for more reforms and more spending on corrections.

The Senate Judiciary B Committee held a hearing Tuesday to talk about issues with criminal justice reform and address issues with the state’s prison system, where 15 inmates have died since December 29.

“We didn’t get here overnight and it’s not going to be fixed in one session,” said Sen. Brice Wiggins (R-Pascagoula), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary B Committee. 

Wiggins cited a report from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review or PEER committee released last fall that detailed how revocations (those on parole being sent back to prison for violations of the conditions of their release) have increased the inmate population after the enactment of the reforms.

According to the same PEER report, an increase in offenders sentenced for drug possession also added to the inmate population.

In January 2014, before the passage of House Bill 585, the state’s inmate population was 22,008. Violent offenders made up 34.7 percent (7,632 inmates) of the prison population. 

As of January 2020, the state’s prison population is 19,057 and violent offenders (9,410) represent 49.38 percent of it.

While that’s a big improvement, the numbers have rebounded from 2015, when the prison population dropped 11 percent. Still, Chief Justice Mike Randolph told the Joint Legislative Budget Committee that criminal justice reform has saved taxpayers an estimated $452 million in incarceration costs, primarily due to the drug intervention courts created by HB 585. This bill also created mental health and veteran courts as well.

The passage of HB 387 in 2018 clarified the use of technical violation centers to deal with parolees and the supervised population dealt with by TVCs increased from a low of 190 parolees in January 2018 to nearly 500 by November 2018, according to state data.

Circuit Judge Prentiss Harrell of Hattiesburg is the chairman of the Corrections and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force. He briefed the Senate Judiciary B Committee on possible problems with the reforms.

One of the main reforms with HB 585 were revisions to the monetary thresholds for certain property crimes that changed many from felonies to misdemeanors and reduced the applicable penalties. 

Harrell told the committee that has resulted in the burden for incarceration on these offenders being passed to local communities. He also said the legislature needs to enact new re-entry courts to supervise and help ex-offenders adjust to life outside bars. He said this would reduce the amount of workloads for the state’s probation officers, who often are forced to supervise 300 former offenders. 

He’d also like more vocational and technical education opportunities for ex-offenders to reduce recidivism.

State Sen. Angela Hill has sponsored a bill, Senate Bill 2080, that would reduce the workload for probation officers to 100 cases or fewer.

Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators Northern Region vice president and Panola County Sheriff’s Department investigator Jimmy Anthony told the committee that there are unconfirmed rumors of gangs not only infiltrating the state’s prisons, but bribing guards and even having gang members or sympathizers outside the walls hired by the DOC.

He said 41 gangs have been identified operating in the state, including eight outlaw motorcycle clubs.

Anthony told the committee that several national gangs have had thousands of confirmed members behind bars in Mississippi since 2011 (when MAGI data began began), including the Vice Lords (5,542 members in DOC custody), Simon City Royals (2,896), Latin Kings (1,029), Aryan Brotherhood (1,026).

Wiggins authored Senate Bill 2728 last session that would’ve expanded the definition of a gang member and prescribed stiffer penalties for related crimes. It died in committee, as did a similar bill in the House.

He said he wants to bring back similar legislation.

Mississippi already has legislation on the books concerning gangs. The Mississippi Street Gang Act was passed in 1997 and allows the attorney general, district attorneys, or a county attorney to bring a civil case against any gang (defined as three or more persons with an established hierarchy that engages in felonious criminal activity).