- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:

March 15

Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss., on Department of Marine Resources:

State Rep. David Baria has, we believe, identified a significant flaw in the Marine Resources Accountability and Reorganization Act now under consideration by the Legislature.

The bill would increase the accountability of the state Department of Marine Resources by requiring an annual audit. But it would also decrease the agency’s accountability by removing DMR employees from civil service protection for one year.

“If there ever was an agency that needed to be held accountable, it is the DMR, considering what has gone on down there, and I don’t believe it’s appropriate to remove them from the protections of the state Personnel Board,” said Baria, D-Waveland.

Other legislators, including state Rep. Jeffrey Guice, R-Ocean Springs, disagree.

“It’s just dragging out the inevitable,” said Guice said. “I don’t believe the purpose of getting out from under the Personnel Board is about firing people. It’s about reassigning people.”

That may be true. But at this point, there’s no way of knowing.

As the Sun Herald has reported, the DMR is contracting with Horne LLP for grant and accounting management assistance at a cost of $250,000.

If the DMR still needs that much outside assistance, then it hardly appears to be in a position to stand on its own.

DMR Executive Director Jamie Miller himself admits it will not be until Horne completes its contract that the DMR has a financial system in place that works and can be trusted.

“Honestly, I would say the system was broken,” Miller said, “but it would be more accurate to say there wasn’t a system at all.”

It was that lack of financial controls and accountability that exposed taxpayers to a “high risk for fraud and abuse” at the DMR, according to Miller.

Hence the crafting of the Marine Resources Accountability and Reorganization Act by Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, and others.

And we should note that although we welcome and encourage enhanced accountability at the DMR, we are certain it is not the only agency of state government that could benefit from better and regular oversight.

That is why we continue to urge the Legislature to require annual audits, not just of the DMR, but of all state agencies, boards and commissions.

Because the State Auditor’s Office has neither the staff nor the money to cover the cost of so many annual audits, the expense should come out of the individual agencies’ budgets. That is, after all, what the state requires of each of its cities, counties and school districts.

Greater accountability should be the objective for all of state government.




March 17

Northeast Mississippi Journal, Tupelo, Miss., on inmate re-entry costs:

Recidivism is a fancy word that means two things: Human lives wasted and taxpayer dollars squandered. Its literal meaning, of course, is criminal relapse. The recidivism rate is the rate at which inmates who’ve been in prison return.

In Mississippi, it’s nearly one in three within three years after their release.

That’s a stunning statistic, and the people who run the criminal justice system believe they know a big reason why it’s so high. Prisoners set free are, for the most part, simply not adequately equipped for their re-entry into society.

Daily Journal reporter JB Clark outlined the issue in Sunday’s paper. It basically amounts to this: Not enough is done while Mississippi inmates are in prison to make them more likely to succeed when they leave - to find a job, a place to live, a stable life - and few resources are available to help them once they get out.

Hard-line thinking would say, too bad, they got themselves in the fix they’re in and the state and the taxpayers have no obligation to help them in any way, whether they’re in or out of prison. Whatever the moral flaws of that argument, it’s a short-sighted view from a practical standpoint.

Not providing some skills training and re-entry assistance greatly raises the chances that released prisoners will turn again to crime. This is bad for the safety of people and property, and when they are again incarcerated, a burden on the public treasury. An investment on the front end can reduce both risks.

A criminal justice system task force made up of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, legislators and law enforcement and corrections representatives worked through most of 2013 to come up with a package of recommendations that passed both houses of the 2014 Legislature in differing forms and will now be subject to further negotiations.

The task force aimed to slow the rapid escalation in prison population and costs in Mississippi, whose incarceration rate is second in the nation and rising. It would do this by giving judges alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders while ensuring that those guilty of particularly serious crimes serve even longer time in prison.

If the recommendations are adopted as a package, the task force believes, the state could save more than $260 million over the next 10 years. The task force calls for a greatly stepped-up re-entry program for prisoners be paid for from those savings.

The up-front costs of such a commitment would be more than paid for by savings on the back end. A decline in the recidivism rate means savings for taxpayers - and a lot of lives saved from self-destruction in the process.




March 12

Natchez (Miss.) Democrat on state needs plan for state’s many failing schools:

Employees at the Mississippi Department of Education are probably praying for passage of House Bill 455.

If the bill fails to become law, the Department of Education is on the hook to take over as many as 52 failing schools if the schools earn an “F” on statewide rankings again this year.

Those schools already have failing marks for the last two years and under current law, the third strike means the state must take over the entire districts affected.

The state education department is in no way capable of taking over so many school districts so quickly.

The fear of the possibility of doing so led education department officials to begin giving threatened districts a list of possible ways out of the takeover threat.

The Natchez-Adams School District is among those potential takeover candidates based on two years of failing grades at Natchez High School and Morgantown Middle School.

Based on state advice, NASD is working on a plan to cheat the takeover by effectively reorganizing the two troubled schools. The logic is if the schools change in structure and form, the newly created entities will reset the failure clock, thus pushing back the day of reckoning.

But House Bill 455 - still in a fluid state as of Tuesday - would ease the problems facing the education department by allowing individual schools, rather than entire districts, to be taken over.

That would help, but unfortunately, the bill also resets the clock for takeovers, too. Perhaps that’s better than the alternative of disguising a retooling effort and a name change as a fix.

Eventually, the state must commit to a firm plan for what to do with the dozens of failing school districts across Mississippi.



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