Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Jackson resident Almona Fleming is a placid woman, prone to introspective stares and thoughtful contemplation during interviews. Her calm demeanor says nothing about the writhing coil of hunger that for years twisted inside her, eating at both her stomach and her family life.
"If you've never had this problem, then you'll never know what it feels like—what it feels like to be needing something that upsets your family, your whole life, everything," Fleming said, staring motionless at her television.
Fleming, now 40, had her first taste of crack cocaine when she was 18, back in the 1980s. Her boyfriend at the time introduced her to it. She had no idea what kind of potent mixture she was sampling. Crack cocaine is the poor man's curse. High-end powdered cocaine can sell for hundreds of dollars a gram. Most of that contains various versions of hydrophilic salt, wood cellulose and other plant excretions, mixed in perhaps with traces of muck from the feet of the Colombian worker who first stomped it into a paste. But crack cocaine is a cheaper version mixed with sodium bicarbonate, and readily available to the masses, spreading the possibility of addiction across a wider swath of the population.
It's not food. It's not water. It is something with no clear evolutionary explanation for the connection it shares with the human mind. But its effect on the human mesolimbic reward pathway means you might beat it into submission, but you'll always know, for the rest of your life, that it'll be in there right behind your eyes, hungry and waiting for you to be weak. You'll always have to cope with it, no matter where you are in life.
A Weakness for Crack
Like many, Almona Fleming has struggled to overcome her problem—a weakness for crack—but that problem got significantly more public, and painful, when it coupled itself with draconian Mississippi laws regarding incarceration for drug crimes.
Fleming—who just got out of the Rankin County Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in January—pled guilty to the sale of cocaine before Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter in July 2003. She maintains that she was not selling cocaine, that she was only an addict trying to personally feed her habit. Hinds County Circuit Court records indicate that she sold crack cocaine to the undercover narcotics bureau officer in 2001. She claims it was .01 grams. Court records do not specify. If she's being honest, that amounts to about $5 worth of product—not exactly a big sale if she was looking to cash in that day.
Authorities snagged her on charges of "enhanced" sale of cocaine, meaning she was busted within 1,500 feet of a school or church. State laws impose stricter sentences upon convicted dealers found plying their trade in the proximity of these culturally elevated spots, and Fleming's location, at the time, was close to a church on Medgar Evers Boulevard.
DeLaughter handed her 10 years. The average sentence in Mississippi for the sale of illegal drugs is 10.4 years. That's 4.3 years longer than the national average of 5.7 years, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Today, Fleming lives in an aging apartment complex that does not generate enough revenue to maintain repairs. It is likely the kind of crumbling example the Jackson City Council points to when it comes time to debate the city's ongoing moratorium on rental housing. Fleming aspires to be a cosmetologist, but currently makes about $7 an hour at a local restaurant. She knows she will probably never bring home a $20,000 annual salary in her life, unless the magical bag-of-money goblin drops a gift in her lap and finances her hair-care training.
Still, she has her husband Hezekiah Dallas, who stood with her during her seven years in prison, and her five remaining kids. The sixth son, 17-year-old Andrew Fleming, died of gunshot wounds near Lindsey Drive in west Jackson in December 2003—five months after DeLaughter handed his mother 10 years.
"I went to the wake, but I couldn't go to the funeral. They don't let you go to the funeral. They still haven't caught the person who killed him," Fleming said, describing her son as a boy extremely bitter with his mother, her addiction and her incarceration at the time of his death. "All my kids were so mad at me when I went to prison. I'm so sorry I did it, but I can't go back and change that. All I can do is promise them that it ain't gonna happen again."
"I saw a lot of people get out and come back while I was in prison, and they would talk about how they enjoyed being with their children. But I'm like, ‘Why did you go back and do drugs and get arrested if you liked being with them so much?'" she said, shaking her head in bewilderment.
The 85-Percent Rule
Fleming's case in Mississippi is not surprising. Mississippi has the second highest incarceration rate in the United States, with 749 prisoners per 100,000 state residents, according to Anjuli Verma, a researcher with the ACLU in Washington, D.C. Mississippi held 11,250 inmates in 1994, compared to 22,800 by 2007. The rate increase amounts to an explosion, with a 105 percent increase in the prison population, compared to the state population between 1994 and 2007. Only Louisiana cultivated a higher incarceration rate, but Mississippi still beats out the rest of the nation and even its southeastern neighbors with its rate increase. The incarceration rate for the whole country rose 46 percent, but Mississippi's 105 percent tops the southern region's rising average of 51.
The problem was serious enough to make the top of the issues list at the Mississippi Justice Coalition's third annual Criminal Justice Conference at the Roberts-Walthall Hotel in Jackson earlier this month. The coalition, a collaboration of organizations including the Mississippi NAACP, the ACLU and the Mississippi Youth Justice Project, spent all day April 10 hammering the state's miserable incarceration rate.
Until 1995, discretionary parole was always a possibility for any inmate who had served one-quarter to one-third of his or her prison sentence. But then came truth-in-sentencing laws.
Like many states, Mississippi declared war on crime in the 1990s, partially in response to an increase in drug-related misdeeds following the introduction of crack cocaine to the U.S. Mississippi adopted truth-in-sentencing laws in 1995, requiring inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before being considered eligible for release.
Legislators all across the nation argued that the 85-percent rule would act as a deterrent to violent crime. However, Mississippi, while last in many things, jumped to the forefront in terms of extremes in 1995 and applied the now familiar 85-percent rule to all crimes, including drug crimes.
"You wouldn't believe how the incarceration rate exploded when they decided to do that," said prisoner-rights attorney Ron Welch, who lobbied for the last few years to expand the use of prisoner work programs to reduce prison sentences and save the state money.
"The numbers were cataclysmic. Mississippi was not a lawless state by any stretch of the imagination, then. We had our share of crime, but we're not a large state. When the incarceration numbers doubled, it was clear that the old military-industrial complex had become a criminal-industrial complex," Welch said.
Former Hinds County District Attorney Faye Peterson said the 85-percent rule, which now only applies to violent crimes since legislators updated the law in 2008, had its benefits.
"The 85-percent rule gave crime victims some confidence that the convicted person would not be out on a revolving-door basis. They would serve some time, and it would mean something, but also it changed the way defendants negotiated their sentence," said Peterson, who is now a private attorney. "When we would discuss a case with a victim's family, especially on those violent crimes, the discussion was often about the number of years because of the 85-percent rule."
Plea bargains, as Peterson described them, appeared to become an issue discussed under duress. "In trying to resolve cases though a plea negotiation, it became difficult for the defense attorney because it was all about trying to get the best thing for their client, knowing he'd have to serve 85 percent of that time before being released. So every year really mattered as far as what kind of deal was being offered by the state. Eighty-five percent of 10 years over 85 percent of five years made a big difference during negotiations," she said.
While not discounting the boon to prosecutors, Verma said other methods helped the 85-percent rule fill prisons.
"What's really contributed to growth in the prison population went beyond just the lack of parole, but the sentencing scheme in general. The state had mandatory minimums for really low-level offenses, which have contributed to the lack of discretion in terms of sentencing first-time, non-violent drug offenders to prison for mandatory minimum terms," Verma said, adding that the state also wields exceptionally long terms of confinement behind those mandatory minimum sentences.
"The maximums that people can be sentenced to in Mississippi can be really long—50 years in some examples for non-violent drug offenses."
Fleming counts herself among the many residents of Jackson who suffered exceptionally long prison time for what they consider relatively minor drug offenses. While apologetic of hurting her children and conscious that she broke the law, she still feels the system targeted her in lieu of much bigger fish.
"I thought you sentenced people with hard time for serious crimes. I'd never had a history of selling drugs or getting arrested for owning drug paraphernalia. But to give somebody 10 years for having 0.1 grams of crack? When they weighed it, it really didn't make any sense, not for 10 years," she said, describing the sale as more of a taxi service. She says she took the money from the undercover agent, used his money to get the dope from a dealer, then returned to the cop with the goodies. It still counts as a transaction by state law, despite her description, but Fleming remains bitter at the length of sentence.
"DeLaughter, he didn't like drug dealers," Fleming said of the judge who himself pleaded guilty in 2009 to lying to federal authorities in a corruption investigation involving convicted Mississippi attorney Dickie Scruggs and former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters. Her bitterness was obvious during her sentencing proceedings, according to her sister-in-law Mary Dallas, who said Fleming viciously berated the judge before the court for what she considered an overly harsh sentence.
Fleming, smiling timidly, admitted to shouting at DeLaughter.
Unlike her judge, Fleming is out of prison, but remains under house arrest. She has to wear an ankle bracelet and check in regularly with her probation officer for the remainder of her 10-year term.
Fleming's suspicions of an exceptionally hard sentence may have some foundation, according to the ACLU report "Incarceration Trends in Mississippi 1988-2008." The report reveals that African Americans comprise 37 percent of the state's population, but almost 70 percent of incarcerated convicts.
Whites, on the other hand, who make up 60 percent of the state's population, only occupy 31 percent of the state prison population. In fact, a 2007 analysis by Washington, D.C.-based The Sentencing Project found that African Americans in Mississippi were incarcerated 3.5 times the rate of whites—and often for lesser crimes.
"This comes mostly from hard sentencing for non-violent or drug crimes, which adversely affect minorities," Verma said. "It also comes of law enforcement practices in communities that tend to be low income."
A Funnel for Minorities
Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson agrees that Mississippi's system, like the national system, scoops up more minorities than whites in its judicial net.
"It's a system that targets minorities through a number of ways," Johnson said.
"Over the last few years, the whole country has enacted harsher penalties for drug crimes, which blacks are more likely to admit to, and it's also a matter of the kind of drug that gets targeted with stiffer penalties. Possession of crack cocaine carries a prison penalty almost 100 times greater than the penalty for possession of powdered cocaine."
Johnson is referring to the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, which actually created a 100-to-1 ratio between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine penalties. "I don't think it is a coincidence that blacks used crack cocaine more than whites, and whites tend to use powered cocaine. It all comes down to money and who can afford it," Johnson added.
The NAACP reports more than 70 percent of incarcerations for drug-related crimes are in the black community, a situation that Johnson believes has plenty to do with the comparatively limited resources left to blacks, and a juror's bias against black males in the courtroom.
"All around us, even in Mississippi with its large black population, we find black males being demonized in the media," Johnson said.
"Right after the election (of Jackson Mayor Frank Melton), we saw a ramping up of news coverage of crime in the Jackson area. For two weeks straight, during a week of constant police sweeps, the news reported the same crime from seven different angles over two weeks, as if it were a new crime happening every day. Of course, the people on film were black. That was the demonizing of African American males in action."
Mississippi's underfunded public-defender system also helps create a rapid-delivery system of prison time, Johnson said.
The NAACP's Legal Defense Fund first addressed the state's indigent-defense problem in 2003 with the release of "Assembly Line Justice: Mississippi's Indigent Defense Crisis." The report revealed that in 2003 only three of 82 Mississippi counties had an office staffed by one or more full-time public defenders. The overburdened work environment of the remaining handful of public defenders, according to the report, makes it easy for them to fail to explain the terms of plea agreements, misinform clients about the length of sentences, and convey other erroneous information.
The fund also discovered that court-appointed defense attorneys did not often have the time to interview crucial witnesses or investigate defenses. Defendants' protests about witnesses and alibis often go ignored, or prompt a warning that rejecting a plea offer will provoke the judge to expand their prison time. Often, according to the LDF report, "court-appointed attorneys stand mutely at the podium without offering a single word on their clients' behalf."
Johnson pointed out recently that many defense attorneys in rural states (most of the state is rural, he quickly adds) have full-time jobs as private-practice attorneys and do not possibly have time to speak to witnesses or do any investigative work on behalf of many of their publicly-assigned clients. Some of the attorneys can get assigned the case more than a year after the crime occurred, raising the possibility of crime scenes changing, memories going foggy and witnesses moving away or even dying.
"Shortfalls in public defense are a problem for minorities because you have many minority-dominated areas with high unemployment rates, and where blacks are unable to afford counsel, or adequate defense," Johnson said. "The state of Mississippi doesn't have a public-defender system, so you have a number of individuals who are incarcerated for crimes they didn't commit, or have more years than necessary for the crime they did commit."
Authorities' use of confidential informants also garnered criticism at the Saturday event. Verma said confidential informants work to derail the justice system by incriminating what could be relatively small players in the criminal scheme. In some cases, she said, their information could even lead to a conviction of not just a criminally trivial person, but also an entirely innocent one.
"Confidential informants are motivated by self-advancement. They work for the government, often undercover, to gather and provide information or to testify in exchange for cash or leniency in punishment for their own crimes. They should never take the place of a real witness. Their motives have to be suspect," Verma said.
Peterson said her office had to occasionally turn to confidential informants, but she admits to being leery of using them.
"Confidential informants are a tool that you have to deal with, but I didn't really like using them because an informant is sometimes about as dirty as the person they're telling on," Peterson said. "They do have their ulterior motives. They tend to negotiate for reduced charges, and they can be problematic for us because you have to balance your informant's information versus how dirty your informant is. And the amount of dirt on them makes a difference on whether or not we can use them before a jury."
Peterson said her office had to laboriously check behind confidential informant information, and that too little research could easily jettison the case.
"Sometimes confidential informants have to be used in a court because there is no other way to verify something. I always dealt with them very cautiously. I had to be very careful. We got burned sometimes on informants," Peterson said. "Maurice Warner got off on one case because of a bad informant."
In 2006, back when she was district attorney, Peterson failed to convict murder suspects Vidal Sullivan and co-defendants Anthony Staffney and Zedrick Maurice Warner for the February 2003 murder of Carey Bias after an informant recanted his story.
The same year, Peterson had to drop murder charges against Albert "Batman" Donelson because she said former Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director Frank Melton "tainted" the chief witness. Donelson was a suspect in the 1998 slaying of Harrison Hilliard. Sworn statements revealed that Melton had provided an apartment, a car and a credit card to informant Christopher Walker, however. During the course of the trial, Melton claimed he had provided for Walker in order to protect him. Walker later told the JFP that Melton asked him to lie in the case.
Melton later supported current District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith to successfully run against Peterson in the Hinds County Democratic primary.
Regina Kelly, a public speaker at the Saturday conference who beat back an indictment based on the testimony of a lone confidential informant, told the JFP that the dodgy nature of confidential informant testimony, coupled with the ACLU's work in Texas, restricted the use of confidential informants to convict defendants in that state.
"The national ACLU stepped in and did a civil suit, and changed law in Texas so that you can no longer use the single word of a confidential informant to convict someone. Confidential informant testimony now has to be corroborated in Texas to convict someone," Kelly said.
"You know what?" she then asked, contemplatively. "Saying it out loud and hearing it, it's actually hard to believe that it was never that way to begin with. It sounds ridiculous that they ever did it the old way. Convicting someone on the account of a single paid informant, or somebody who's getting a reduced sentence for convicting somebody else, sounds crazy."
Kelly added that authorities do their part to make sure the system has a steady stream of defenseless minorities to keep federal grants coming. She filed a civil-rights lawsuit with the ACLU—Regina Kelly v. John Paschall—on behalf of 15 black Hearne, Texas, residents indicted in November 2000 raids. The suit, settled between the ACLU and Robertson County in 2005, accused the South Central Texas Narcotics Task Force for deliberately conducting racially motivated drug sweeps for 15 years in Hearne.
Kelly, who was also caught up in the 2000 bust, complains that authorities went out of their way to target blacks because blacks gave them relatively effortless convictions and plea bargains.
"They conducted these annual raids in order to push for plea bargains and felony convictions to get more money from federal grants, which went directly to police cars and police uniforms and things like that," Kelly said. "This kind of thing doesn't just happen in our town in Texas; it's everywhere. Authorities know that resources are limited for minorities. We don't have the money to fight back; we don't have our own lawyers. What we get is an underfunded state lawyer who is not always working in your best interest."
The codependency of the government and crime can get absurd, according to Ricky Ross, another speaker at the Criminal Justice Conference. Ross was a major Los Angeles drug trafficker who virtually opened the western seaboard to the phenomenon of crack cocaine in the 1980s.
Ross, who earned the name "Freeway" in part due to the open-spigot manner in which he bathed L.A. and cities as far away as Cincinnati in crack cocaine, made international news when a series of "Dark Alliance" articles by reporter Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury News connected one of Ross's cocaine suppliers, Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes, with the CIA and the administration of President Ronald Reagan as part of the Iran-Contra scandal. Reyes revealed the connection when he testified during Ross' 1996 federal trial. Ross was on trial for purchasing more than 100 kilograms of cocaine from a federal agent in a sting operation orchestrated with the help of his partner, Reyes.
Initially facing life in prison, an appeals court reduced his sentence to 20 years. Good behavior reduced his sentence further, and authorities released him last September.
"I don't hide from nothing," Ross said as he paraded back and forth before the crowd of about 200—even as he apparently hid from a sense of remorse.
The JFP asked Ross if he felt guilty at the 1980s height of his career about the vast army of crack babies and drug prostitutes he helped create by selling up to $2 million in cocaine a day—his own boast.
Astoundingly, he denied any knowledge of these sad side effects of the crack industry, even though his speech cranked up minutes after the conclusion of the conference's presentation of BET's "American Gangster: Ricky Ross & the Crack Connection." The show depicted scenes of hopeless crack prostitutes and suffering, malnourished drug-dependent newborns choking away their lost lives beneath a complicated tangle of plastic tubes.
"When I first started selling drugs, we didn't see the destruction," Ross claimed. "There wasn't these crack mothers. My first customers were pimps, doctors, entertainers. Nobody in my neighborhood bought drugs. They didn't know what crack cocaine was. I had to go from person to person, trying to find out if my first piece of crack cocaine was actually cocaine. So I didn't know it was as devastating as it turned out to be."
Look behind Ross' defense, and you'll see that he saw enough of something in the crack cocaine business to back out of it just before his arrest in Reyes' sting. Even Ross admits he had grown discouraged enough with the business to move on just prior to his bust.
"My last time I went to prison, I felt I was innocent," Ross said, defiantly. "I wasn't selling drugs then. I was out trying to make a positive difference in the community. For six months, I told my partner (Reyes) that I was out of the drug business, but he kept pushing and pushing and pushing, making the offer sweeter and sweeter and sweeter, until I agreed to involve myself in the last deal with him."
Reyes, after the trial and his hard work nabbing Ross, received a 24-month sentence for his own drug trafficking charges, and following his release, he worked for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Reyes' is the only known case of a convicted immigrant getting a job with the DEA instead of deportation.
Ross, for his part, remains bitter at Reyes' alleged connection to the CIA's effort to fund the Contra counterinsurgency against the Sandinistas—who overthrew a U.S. ally government in Nicaragua. Webb wrote that the CIA was well aware of large shipments of cocaine into the U.S. by Contra counter-rebels. The reporter said the Reagan administration shielded inner-city drug dealers from prosecution to keep U.S. money flowing smoothly to the Contra movement, despite Congress passing the Boland Amendment prohibiting Contra funding by the U.S.
In 2004, the Sacramento County coroner proclaimed Webb dead of two self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head. Ross doesn't think it was suicide.
"He told me about how everybody was against him and his story, how he couldn't get a job, how people were following him around, that his phones were tapped. I'm still not sure if he really committed suicide, because he told me that he planned to continue to fight to come up with a smoking gun linking Reagan with crack," Ross said of Webb.
Ross admits disgust at his own role in what Webb described as Reagan's goal to fund the overthrow of the Sandinista revolution.
"When I sold drugs, I felt I was rebelling against a system that wanted me on the back of the bus or out of certain schools," said Ross, a former tennis champ who resents losing his chance to play professionally because of his lack of reading and writing skills. His high school coach cost him his tennis scholarship when he learned Ross could hardly write, he says.
"When I found out that the federal government was actually the ones perpetrating the drugs into the community, it was really shocking and hard. I was supposed to be the bad guy. I didn't know that all that time I had been working with them."
Ross says prison exists only to make money for the prison industry.
"Prison is not reform. You can believe what you want to believe, but there's no education in our prison system. Even the guys who educate themselves get a tough time from officials," Ross said. "If I wanted to form a reading group in prison, they won't allow it. They'll break up the study group, so an inmate can't teach an inmate, at least not with books. So how do we improve ourselves? We can only improve ourselves one at a time."
Other critics say reform was never really the goal of prison in the first place.
The Business of Prison
"You can say something positive about the high incarceration rate," the NAACP's Johnson said. "The explosion in the prison population is an economic boost for many private industries. One Mississippi prison started off as a penal farm after Reconstruction, where blacks were sent to work the land for private-industry profit. Since then, the situation has changed only slightly, with some industries still making a killing off the business of locking people up."
Welch said he believed the advent of the 85-percent rule followed the effort of private companies to exploit the corrections industry.
"Private prisons were the result of heavy lobbying by international private corrections companies like Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut, which is now GEO Group. They lobbied all over the place in places like California and us (Mississippi) to be tough on crime because they wanted to build prisons," Welch said. "Hell, it all started with their successful lobbying in Washington to get a federal 85-percent rule act that sling-shot the states into the 85-percent rule."
Paul Wright, editor and founder of prisoner-rights publication Prison Legal News, has little good to say about the private prison industry.
"What private prisons do is take taxpayer dollars and provide less services and generally do a poorer job than the government prisons," said Wright, himself an ex-con. "They cherry-pick the prisoners: They don't take the maximum-security guys or the guys with AIDS or the really mentally ill. Those kinds of prisoners cost money."
"You and I could set up a company if we only got the well-behaved guys. But in so doing, the industry makes it more costly for the state facilities because Mississippi Department of Corrections still has to take the hard cases. They get the escape risks, the death-row guys and the ones with expensive personal problems."
Wright compared the industry to insurance companies, which routinely select the healthy customers and refuse the sickly ones, who inevitably end up on the taxpayers' bill.
Gov. Haley Barbour announced a slew of budget cuts this year, telling reporters at a February press conference that he intended to heavily use private prisons as a means to cut costs from the state corrections department.
"Private prisons must cost less than the public prisons, or they don't get a contract," Barbour told the Jackson Free Press as his reason for defending the private-prison industry. "It's clear that they save the state money. It's in their contract."
Wright agreed with Barbour on savings, but added that the governor left out the "good bit."
"What he's not telling you in that statement is that basically some of the reasons private prisons cost less is because they use non-union labor: They pay their staff a pittance, and they under-staff their facilities. Eighty percent of the costs at a prison are their staffing. Last I heard, a starting prison guard at CCA or GEO prison in Mississippi is still about $7.50. There are no pensions, and the medical benefits are non-existent," Wright said.
Wright added that the under-staffing issue cuts particularly deep when it results in injuries to inmates or employees: "What comes up, time after time, is whenever someone gets killed or raped in a prison, the issue invariably is that the place was understaffed. A private prison that is supposed to have 300 people on staff, but instead they might have 240. That's their profit margin. The people over this get bonuses based on the more costs they cut. I mean, GEO President George Zoley usually makes between $3 million and $4 million, plus stock options every year. How much does the MDOC Commissioner make?"
Paychecks like that put a hit on Mississippi recently, Welch said.
"There's no question that we had to pay the piper later after bringing in private prisons and enacting legislation to fill them," Welch said. "Frankly, it was a misplaced use of revenue. I've always said it costs more to imprison someone than educate them. Now education and the prison system are facing each other and competing for funds."
Prisons vs. Schools
Mississippi legislators return from a month-long hiatus this week to grapple with the question of funding state agencies, including public schools. The state's school system is in danger of getting whacked by Barbour's revised budget recommendation for fiscal year 2011, which asks the Legislature to reduce the funding levels for K-12 education by more than $160 million. If legislators agree with the governor, the money will come out of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a funding formula that distributes state money to low tax-revenue school districts facing steep education shortages. Many of these same school districts also contain some of the most challenged schools on the state's list of failing, at-risk-of-failing schools, or schools on academic watch.
Barbour's budget proposal reduces most agency budgets by 12 percent to 17 percent below fiscal year 2010 appropriated levels. Total K-12 spending, whichincludes federal and local funding, will be $4.574 billion, which the governor claims is less than "1.3 percent below peak spending" on education. But Barbour's $160 million figure isn't exactly the extent of the cuts to MAEP.
His recommendation is actually $319 million under what would be required for fully funding the program up to legislative recommendations. It is, in fact, $160 million below the MAEP funding that the House and Senate tentatively agreed to when the state legislature took a break in March. Advocates say the $319 million price of the full cut is actually the worst the program has witnessed since its inception in 1997.
The governor said the $5.5 billion fiscal year 2011 budget recommendation "urges responsible spending" for the next fiscal year beginning July 1, as the state continues to deal with the national recession. "This budget forces everyone in government to take a good look at programs and make sure taxpayers are getting the best service for their money," Barbour said in a statement.
While education advocates see the possibility of at-risk schools getting even less money for books and teachers, they point to the state's $312 million Department of Corrections budget as the most likely future for many at-risk school students.
"We know that when we under-educate people, as we have for decades in Mississippi, there is a consequence of higher criminal-justice costs," said Nancy Loome, executive director of K-12 lobbying group The Mississippi Parents' Campaign. "The more you cut schools, the higher your incarceration costs and the higher the costs of public assistance programs. Invest more in education, and your corrections costs will come down, ultimately saving the state more money than it invested in education."
In response to the continued problem of dropping state revenue, earlier this month Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps said that he is doing his own part to rid the system of its glut of inmates by ramping up parole efforts for inmates. It is not an easy endeavor considering that prison expenditures grew 155 percent between 1994 and 2007, according to MDOC figures.
In 2008, state lawmakers made Epps' life a little easier by passing Senate Bill 2136, which rolled back the blanket 85-percent rule on all convictions to permit non-violent offenders to once again become eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentence.
"It took a long time to chip away on the 85-percent rule with the help of legislators and the Department of Corrections," Welch said. "It took years with all the soft on crime arguments out there, but you couldn't argue with something like the monstrous MDOC bill forever."
MDOC managed to eliminate its projected growth, and the state's prison population actually declined only a few months after the legislation went into effect. The law, which could be applied retroactively to the existing prison population convicted of non-violent offenses since 1995, allowed for the release of 3,076 non-violent offenders between 2008 and August 2009. Of those 3,076, only 121 had returned to custody by August.
Epps told reporters in March that the inmate recidivism rate has actually dropped over the last three years from 35 percent to 30 percent, which amounts to roughly a reduction of 9,000 inmates a year, saving the state $8.2 million.
Like Loome, Verma said the state could expect success stories like the ones in New Jersey and Kansas if it steers funds toward social services and education programs instead of prisons.
"Kansas and New Jersey have decreased their prison population and experience no increase in violent crime rates. Crime, in general, has been going down," Verma said. "These states are investing in communities to make sure (people) don't have to resort to crime. We're talking about ex-convict re-entry programs, and other educational programs, adult re-education and more investment in youth education. It's a success, wherever you try it.
"Follow the logic."
Flemming's voice flared momentarily when she recalled her years behind bars. "Where were you seven years ago," she demanded of me. "I done thrown seven years of my life away and you want to do a story now?"
CLARIFICATION 6/02/10: Jackson Free Press reporter Adam Lynch cited in this story that "high-end powdered cocaine can sell for hundreds of dollars a gram." More recent figures reported by the U.S. Department of Justice for the third quarter of 2009 put average cocaine prices at $174.03 per gram—with cocaine purity decreasing from 68.1 percent to 46.2 percent.
I listened today, as the Louisiana Legislature's House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice, tossed around several proposed bills seeking to make a dent in the "cruel Louisiana Justice" System. http://house.louisiana.gov/Agendas_2010/Apr_2010/0421_10_CJ.pdf An AP news story didn't get it, just right. http://m.apnews.com/ap/db_8545/contentdetail.htm?contentguid=cFeUHGEY The story gave the impression, that the bulk of the Bills would be heard on the Legislature's floor. However, the meat of the bills dealing with the Pardon Board, were "involuntarily deferred", meaning they will most likely, not come back up again. In fact, the author of the main parole board bills, stated, see you next year. In the Senate Judicial Committee B, a discussion about the Louisiana Public Defender Board, was muted; because the already unsteady status of the Board, couldn't stand any un-necessary manipulation. SB176-Sought to ensure a specific position on the Board from the NE La., area. http://senate.legis.state.la.us/Video/2010/April/042010JUDB.asx - This video at the 1:29:22 mark begins to talk about the Louisiana Public Defender Board. The Director Jean Faria is present, and Senator Lydia Jackson; who, finally makes the statement about the fragile standing of the Board. She said what is it changing other than to "Murky the water of a very delicately balanced board" at the 1:43:40 mark. In the years beginning in 2005, a continual request has been before the Legislature to "Revamp the Judicial Process" in Louisiana. In 2008 more specific action was requested of legislators. On May 9, 2010, an indigent defendant in NE La., will have been incarcerated for one year w/o being tried. The first IDB-Attorney slothfully handled the case. The new IDB-Atty, appointed March 4, 2010 must start all over. The former attorney was moved to replace another IDB-Atty who quit.
Fair sentencing? Yesterday's Clarion Ledger (wire story) reported that actor Michael Douglas' son was sentenced to 5 years for selling large amounts of ampheds and cocaine - as his "last chance to make it" Seems that Douglas has been long known by the Feds as an established dealer in multiple states http://www.nydailynews.com/gossip/2009/08/07/2009-08-07_douglas_sons_meth_trafficker__feds.html Minimum sentence for what he was charged with and pleaded guilty to is 10 years? So why the 5 years instead? In this case, American Justice truly is blind, deaf, crazy, racist, elitist and just not right!
Adam, What a great story. I think Fleming summed up what we are all learning in JFP nation..we need every community to create, l support and embrace their own interactive community news and opinion publication. Only local owned and operated community news outlets have the flexibility and speed to address these critical issues..provided,of course,that they have enough resources. But alas, our JFP is still a small organization and the needs are so many! So to Ms Fleming I can only say, better late than later! Not to discount her strruggle, but there are only so many Adam's in this town. Again Adam, fabulous reporting and writing. You have pesented a comprehensive and readable overview of one of the greatest dilemma's facing our nation. How do we, as a society, balance the economic, social, political and religious contradictions relating to the issues of drugs, race, justice, education and class in a way that benefits the greatest number, if not all, of our country? If only there was somewhere a simple way to judge the relalative and absolute merits of the endless combinations of solutions we could choose from? Does anyone know of such a methodology or philosophy?
If we had decent education on the front end we would need fewer prisons on the back end. We need more good public schools (by any means necessary) such as this one which shows that poor children can learn as well as more privileged children when there is a decent system and caring educators. A ton of extra money is not necessarily the answer: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/26/education/26test.html?hpw
Interesting column, Adam. It plays right in with a book I'm now reading called The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I don't particularly care for drug users or dealers, but I'm becoming convinced the war on drugs is unjustified and is nothing but a great political war on black,latino and other minority people as a clever ploy to control and weaken them socially, economically and politically and otherwise. What are the chances Reagan and his ilk would start this war with good intentions? I don't believe he would any more than I believe ole master would freely and lovingly free the slaves.