In boosting the White House’s own attempts at criminal justice reform, Donald Trump has used Mississippi’s prison reforms as an example of how such reforms ought to work. He probably shouldn’t have. A ProPublica and Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting analysis points to deep, deep problems with Mississippi’s 2014 efforts—all of it, apparently, self inflicted.
House Bill 585 was designed to reduce the prison population by rerouting offenders to better, more effective treatment and rehabilitation efforts. The millions saved by imprisoning fewer people would pay for those reforms and still save the state money; it was lauded as a bipartisan win.
That was the design. In practice, the state made the cuts and simply kept the money. Mother Jones:
Hal Kittrell, of Columbia, who chaired the task force and is a past president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association, said House Bill 585 “was designed to have a savings in cost, but it also anticipated reinvestment back into the program.” […]Five years after Mississippi passed House Bill 585, “we’ve not spent one dime more on reentry, drug treatment and mental health counseling,” Kittrell said. “Where did the money go?”
The answer: Republican-pushed corporate tax cuts. And while the state was eager to pocket the savings from reduced corrections department staffing, the lack of reinvestment means the prison population is again growing, and will soon top what it was before the law was enacted. That means a staff of roughly half the old number of corrections officers, instructors, and counselors are now serving a prison population nearly as large as before. Efforts to implement a great deal of the law, in fact, now seem to have been insincere:
House Bill 585 requires Mississippi’s Corrections Department to ensure each of the more than 8,000 offenders leaving prison annually has a driver’s license or state ID card, but lawmakers provided no extra funding for these cards. Fewer than 100 offenders are receiving them a month, according to the department.
A lack of IDs, in turn, means efforts to find employment and otherwise re-integrate those released are similarly stymied.
Mississippi lawmakers now are tasked with deciding what to do with their much-touted effort at state prison reform. They could fund anti-recidivism programs as originally envisioned, but state budgets have already been decimated by tax cuts. They could abandon the process, allowing the prison population to return to pre-reform levels—but are squeezing the Corrections Department budget instead, redirecting the savings to those same tax cuts, and seem to have zero interest in undoing any of that.
Which leaves the state in a bind. If there is a lesson here for Republican lawmakers, it would be Don’t Steal The Damn Money. That ship, though, already sailed.