Lawmakers asked to consider programs for departing inmates

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JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi lawmakers say they could consider programs aimed at helping former inmates establish productive lives as they leave prison.

House and Senate committees heard Monday from the state corrections commissioner, a state judge, a federal judge, and advocates from liberal and conservative groups. Many speakers said lawmakers need to address what causes former prisoners to commit new offenses and get sent back into custody.

Hal Kittrell of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association said the state should invest in vocational training and re-entry programs.

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett, who is a former state circuit court judge, said Mississippi needs “meaningful” supervision of former prisoners. He suggested the state establish re-entry courts. A former inmate would go before a judge periodically so the judge could evaluate whether the person is successfully managing issues such as finding a job or dealing with mental health problems or drug problems.

“You need to know if the interventions are working,” Starrett said.

Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States. Although the state enacted a law in 2014 designed to make the criminal justice system more efficient and less expensive, some legislators say more changes are needed. Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Sampson Jackson, a Democrat from Preston, said Monday that Mississippi incarcerates “far too many people for far too long.”

House Corrections Committee Chairman Bill Kinkade, a Republican from Byhalia, said Mississippi has reduced spending on the criminal justice system by about $40 million since the 2014 law was enacted.

Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall agreed the state has saved money by reducing its prison population and renegotiating some contracts. She said other states that are reducing inmate populations are putting money into programs to help former inmates as they re-enter society. Mississippi has not done that, but it should, Hall said.

Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, said the state’s current cash bail system traps low-income people in county jails as they await trial. Wealthy people can use their homes as collateral, write a check or use a credit card to post bail. She said poor people might have to choose between paying bail for a relative or buying food.

“The current bail system allows financial predators to profit,” Riley-Collins said.

James Robertson works for Empower Mississippi, a conservative group that advocates removing barriers to economic opportunity. He said former inmates often have problems finding jobs, in part because they have to meet periodically with probation officers. Some businesses might be more willing to hire former inmates if the state approved tax credits for businesses that do so, Robertson said.

Republican Rep. Becky Currie of Brookhaven said she is skeptical about changes that could release more people from custody. The man charged with killing two Brookhaven police officers in 2018 had previously been imprisoned and was out on parole.

“Now, I’m not saying that everybody who is paroled is going to do this,” Currie said. “But we have to have some kind of trust that the system, if we’re going to do all this, is going to work. And I just don’t have it.”

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