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Mississippi’s ‘laboratory of democracy’ deserves notice

State Sen. Brice Wiggins
State Sen. Brice Wiggins AP

Murders, sexual batteries, burglaries, drug transfers — I prosecuted them all.

From 2003 to 2011, first as a Youth Court prosecutor and then as an assistant district attorney for seven years, I interacted with families, victims, court personnel and jurors affiliated with violent and non-violent crimes.

Tough on crime? You bet. That has always been and continues to be my modus operandi.

Mississippi’s second-degree murder statute? I drafted and championed it.

The Lonnie Smith Act strengthening Mississippi’s child abuse statute? I drafted the Senate bill and championed it.

GPS monitoring for sex offenders in Mississippi? I co-sponsored it.

Additional prosecutors throughout Mississippi? I secured them via my position on Senate Appropriations.

Those eight years in the prosecutor’s offices, though, could best be described as witnessing a “revolving door”: Addicts, families and criminals were all continually revolving through the door with no solution in sight. There had to be a better way.

Between 1983 and 2013, in response to the crack epidemic and a rise in violent crimes, “tough on crime” legislation became popular.

The prison population in Mississippi rose 300 percent to 22,400 inmates, second in the nation only to Louisiana. Of these 22,400 inmates, 75 to 80 percent of them were on probation or parole and 15 to 20 percent were incarcerated.

By 2013, 85 percent of the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ state budget dollars were funding the 15 percent in prison. Additionally, under the radar, in response to bloating MDOC budgets, the Mississippi Legislature passed laws reducing sentences and increasing good behavior time, effectively ceding power to a corrupt MDOC agency, resulting in distrust in the system and violent offenders on the streets, including in Jackson County, my home county.

These facts are best described with two words: Broken and inefficient. This inefficiency of the state government led to a coalition of policymakers throughout the nation, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and President Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, coming together through the Texas Public Policy Institute and Right on Crime, to draft comprehensive reform legislation that would push Mississippi’s criminal justice system into the 21st century.

The result? Along with Texas, Mississippi has become a leader in criminal justice reform.

At the introduction of the legislation in 2014, 19 policy recommendations made by the Criminal Justice Reform Task Force were made that focused on emphasizing prison space for career or violent criminals, strengthening community involvement and clarifying sentencing requirements.

After Gov. Phil Bryant signed the bill, the policies that went into place across Mississippi fostered a pioneering criminal justice system that did all of the following:

▪ Reduced the imprisonment rate.

▪ Created better public safety outcomes through improved supervision and services.

▪ Created certainty in sentencing because of the focus on serious and violent offenders within prison space.

▪ Increased savings to the taxpayers.

Before the passage of this legislation, Mississippi had the second highest imprisonment rate in the country, trailing only Louisiana.

Six months after the passage, Mississippi had fallen to the fifth highest imprisonment rate in the country and continues to drop. This significant jump from the second highest imprisonment rate to fifth in the nation is a testament to the efficiency of the policy package that improved the overall public safety of Mississippi.

By refocusing the state’s supervision resources on high-risk re-offenders, implementing evidence-based corrections practices and providing adequate preparation for offenders to re-enter society as law-abiding citizens, the state was able to accomplish the following things in regards to improving public safety:

▪ Probation success rates increased from 68 percent in FY2012 to 82 percent in FY2015, and supervision violations dropped significantly.

▪ The Department of Corrections has utilized graduated sanctions that allow probation officers to interrupt non-compliant behavior with increased drug testing and mandatory curfews as well as implementing a new risk assessment tool to identify potential re-offenders.

▪ The Mississippi Reentry Council was created to assist all inmates with the coordination of distribution government ID cards as well as assistance with housing and employment.

After the implementation of the legislation, nonviolent and violent offenders are serving 25 to 50 percent of their sentences, which ensures the consequences of criminal actions are clear to offenders.

Further, the percentage of the state’s prison space reserved for violent offenders increased from 46 percent in FY2013 to 56 percent in FY2015; the admissions for low-level crimes have declined, such as a 14 percent drop in drug possession offenders and a 38 percent drop in shoplifting offenders; and the parole grant rate has increased from 36 percent in FY 2012 to 65 percent in FY 2015.

The changes in these statistics have led to the allocation of these resources to be used in a more fiscally responsible way, which has led to savings not only for the state but the taxpayers as well, all without jeopardizing public safety.

Initially, higher parole grant rates drove the decline, and the implementation of House Bill 585 expedited the process significantly.

The diversion of technical violators of supervision to Technical Violation Centers, which are treatment oriented, has saved 1,400 prison beds. Further, sentencing reforms have diverted drug and property offenders to working prison alternatives.

Over the next 10 years, it is projected that this reform package will save the state taxpayers an estimated $266 million. In addition, it will avert any potential increase in the prison population of Mississippi.

In fact, since 2013, Mississippi’s prison population has declined for two years in a row, a total of 11 percent.

Just last week, Mississippi’s new MDOC commissioner, Marshall Fisher, former head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, announced the closure of one of the state’s most troublesome prisons, Walnut Grove. These savings mean more state dollars can be allocated to other programs such as education.

The bottom line is that this pioneering criminal justice system has proven to work in Mississippi, Texas and other conservative red states.

As conservatives, we pride ourselves on valuing the states as “laboratories of democracy.” Take a bottom-up approach to governing and borrow from proven programs in the states.

Is that not what we ask of our conservative leaders in Congress?

Implementing criminal justice reform pioneered in Mississippi, Texas and other states is the right thing to do for the public safety and well-being of all Americans.

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