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85 percent rule jails taxpayers, not inmates

By Staff
Dec. 19, 2001
Feeling charitable this Christmas, lowly Mississippi taxpayer? You should.
For in addition to providing a little Christmas cheer for your own family, you're helping to pay for the lodging and Christmas dinners for some 20,250 Mississippi prisoners in local, state and federal correctional facilities, bless their little felonious hearts.
At a $15,600 per-prisoner annual incarceration cost, the conservative estimate of the room-and-board tab on that is $315.9 million. But that's a bargain, right? Why? Because Mississippi's tough on crime. We are, aren't we? Right?
That's what every incumbent politician with a pulse will tell you. Evidence?
The so-called "85 percent rule" that has since 1995 required that prisoners convicted of a crime in Mississippi serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for parole. Tough talk, that.
Patterned in conjunction with the U.S. Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 an act which provided federal grant incentives to states that adopted the "truth-in-sentencing" philosophy the Legislature joined 11 other states in enacting state truth-in-sentencing laws in 1995. But we went farther.
Mississippi, Florida and Ohio went beyond the federal standards in applying the "85 percent rule" not merely to violent crimes as did federal law but to all felonies violent or non-violent. In nothing short of an admission of the failure of the policy in Mississippi, the Legislature relaxed the rule last year for first-time, non-violent offenders. It was about time.
More prisoners and crime
How did rule work? You be the judge.
According to the U.S. Justice Department's "Prisoners in 2000" report released in August, Mississippi now ranks:
3rd in the nation in the rate of growth of the state's prison population in 2000 at 10.9 percent.
4th in the nation in the rate of prison population growth since 1990. Between 1990-2000, Mississippi's number of prisoners has increased 11,155 or 138 percent with an average annual increase of 9.1 percent.
3rd in the nation in rate of incarceration with 688 of every 100,000 Mississippians behind bars.
From 1990-2000, Mississippi has through public construction or private contracting paid for an increase of 9,875 state and federal prison beds or a 134.1 percent increase.
The same report damns Mississippi's truth-in-sentencing experience for the utter failure that it has been and does so conclusively. Prisoners kept coming.
Nationally, the average annual increase in prison populations peaked in 1994 the year federal truth-in-sentencing standards were adopted at 8.7 percent and has declined steadily to 2000's 1.3 percent increase.
Over the decade, the national average annual increase in prison population was 6 percent. For the same period in Mississippi, the prison population has increased an average of 9.1 percent each year. Between 1990-2000, Mississippi's number of prisoners has increased 11,155 or 138 percent. Crime rates? Slightly down.
The new 85 percent rule?
Did you get that? Mississippi's prison population grew one-third larger on a percentage basis than the rest of the country over the last decade. So, is the "85 percent rule" working? Check the rankings.
Mississippi ranks 31st nationally in total population, but the FBI says that in 2000 we ranked 27th in overall crime, 27th in violent crime, 26th in property crime, 23rd in rape, 21st in robbery, 18th in aggravated assault, 10th in burglary, 15th in theft and 2nd in murder. Wow!
And over the last decade while we paid for 9,875 new prison beds, we built only 1,726 new beds for our state's college dormitories. That's the new 85 percent rule, I guess, for our best and brightest minds.
Sid Salter is Perspective Editor/Columnist at The Clarion-Ledger and a syndicated Mississippi political columnist. Call him at (601) 961-7084, write P.O. Box 40, Jackson, MS 39206, or e-mail