- Associated Press - Monday, December 12, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi could improve public safety by investing in programs that help people get their lives on track as they leave prison, state Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher said Monday.

Fisher said that even with a tight state budget, it’s a smart financial decision to try to prevent people from committing more crimes and returning to custody.

“I think this state is in dire need of re-entry courts and mental health courts,” Fisher told members of the House Corrections Committee.

Re-entry courts could help former inmates find social services, drug treatment or job training, while mental health courts could monitor those who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or other disorders to ensure they are taking prescribed medication, he said.

A 2014 state law was designed to make the criminal justice system more efficient, and it created the Mississippi Re-entry Council. One of the council members, U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett, told lawmakers Monday that re-entry courts and mental health courts could provide an extra degree of supervision.

He also suggested that legislators consider rewriting laws that take away a person’s right to have a driver’s license, including those that revoke a license for failure to pay child support or fines. Because Mississippi is a largely rural state, most people need to be able to drive to get to work.

“You want them to pay child support. You want them to pay their fines. And I do, too,” Starrett said. “But, they’ve got to have a job. It’s crucial to their long-term success that they have a job.”

He said license revocation is an impediment to former inmates trying to rebuild their lives as they leave prison.

“These are fragile people when they come back,” Starrett said. “They’ve lost their home, they’ve lost their car, they’ve lost their family, they’ve lost their job. They need at least - not a handout, but a hand up.”

The Department of Corrections budget has decreased in recent years, and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee is recommending another cut for the year that begins July 1. There was no discussion Monday of how much re-entry courts or mental health courts could cost.

In November, the average daily population of all of Mississippi’s state-run prisons, community work centers, regional correctional facilities, restitution centers and privately run prisons was 18,993. That is up slightly from 18,886 in November 2015, but down from 19,379 in November 2014.


Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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