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Corrections cuts leave officials with only hard choices

Recent cuts to the Mississippi Department of Corrections budgetleave state and local leaders with nothing but difficult decisionsas they consider how to cope with the current budget crisis.

Faced with a $24.9 million cut, MDOC Commissioner Chris Epps hasinformed county sheriffs that the agency will not reimbursecounties $20 a day for housing state inmates after March 15. Thatanswer may address state-level concerns, but it puts more of theinmate costs burden on county sheriffs’ departments.

Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing said it costs around $30 aday to house an inmate locally. With the loss of the $20 a dayreimbursement for about 12 state inmates who are assigned to workcrews here, that could mean the county having to absorb the fullcost – more than $130,000 a year – of housing those inmates.

For any counties that have figured a way to house inmates forless than $20 a day and therefore actually make money for holdingstate prisoners, they may be counting on the state revenue streamto pay off bond indebtedness on new jails or other facilities orjust day-to-day operations. Some may question the practice, but itis nevertheless a reality for counties in those situations.

There is another value that comes from having state inmates onwork crews.

That value comes from the work, such as vehicle washing, routinemaintenance, litter control and other activities, that inmates dofor the counties in which they are located. In the absence of thoseinmates, the county could incur additional expenses for having thatwork performed, or it could just go undone.

But counties sending inmates back to the penitentiary seemsanother hard choice, for the state has limited space and eventuallycould be forced to release some inmates back to the street. Thatissue has already been discussed in some legislative circles.

Of course, any early release plan for inmates would likely spur”soft on crime” accusations from citizens who would just as soonsee criminals locked up for good and the key thrown away.

Everyday citizens, however, must feel safe and secure in theirhomes and neighborhoods. And without assurances of rehabilitation,the prospect of criminals – regardless of the crimes committed -being freed to again roam the streets is troubling for them.

For his part, Rushing is taking a wait and see approach untilthe state sheriffs association has a chance to meet and discuss thestate inmate situation later this week. As competing interests – bethey education, health care, corrections or other areas – battlefor dollars at the state Capitol, it seems that waiting and seeingin all anyone can do at this point.