Mississippi had been making significant progress in lowering its inmate population.
A confluence of factors — from racial disparities in sentencing to skyrocketing corrections costs to better understanding of mental illness and addiction — had coalesced around a bipartisan movement to reduce the number of offenders going to prison and how long they stay there.
The movement has produced a host of reforms. The Legislature has backed off a truth-in-sentencing law from the 1990s that fueled the initial explosion in the inmate population. It has supported the creation and expansion of sentencing alternatives, such as drug courts and house arrest. It has significantly increased the number of inmates eligible for parole.
There are, however, some disconcerting early signs that when it comes to parole, the reforms are being thwarted by new leadership at the state Parole Board.
Jerry Mitchell, the dean of Mississippi’s investigative reporters, recently examined what appears to be happening.
In September 2013, according to Mitchell, Mississippi had as many as 22,490 inmates behind bars, giving it one of the highest incarceration rates not only in the United States but in the world. In the years since, the number of incarcerated has steadily declined, hitting a two-decade low of 16,499 in early February of this year. That equates to a drop of more than 25% in the number incarcerated.
In the three months since, however, the prison population has started rising again, exceeding 17,100. Mitchell says the increase is being caused at least in part by the Parole Board, under new Chairman Jeffery Belk, turning down a much higher percentage of those who come before it than the board did in the not-too-distant past.
In March, three out of every four inmates, or 75%, who appeared before the Parole Board were rejected. In April, the rejection rate exceeded 80%. That compares to what Belk’s predecessor, Steve Pickett, estimated as just a 40% rejection rate during the previous decade.
There may be legitimate reasons for the disparity, although that’s hard to say since Belk did not respond to Mitchell’s request for comment. And admittedly two months of parole hearings is too small of a sample about which to arrive at any definitive conclusions.
The intent, however, of the Legislature was clear when it changed the rules last year to extend parole eligibility to a couple of thousand additional inmates. It expected more of them to be released. If that’s not happening, Belk needs to explain why.