Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves’ appointment of Jeffery Belk as chairman of the State Parole Board is costing the state dearly. Belk adopted the role in January, replacing Steven Pickett, who retired late last year.
Pickett had worked with the parole board to adhere to legislative intent to reduce the state’s prison population, which was sucking the state dry of money and resources since the 1990’s with the implementation of mandatory prison minimums and infamous “three-strikes” policies. Following a national “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” trend, Mississippi legislators passed a “truth in sentencing law” (Senate Bill 2175) in 1995 requiring felons to serve 85% of their sentence. The prison population “more than doubled from 1995 to 2008” from 12,292 in 1995 to 31,031 in 2005. Mississippi’s tiny, largely rural budget could not afford it.
The state barely had the capacity to safely hold 20,000 inmates, but exceeded that figure by 3,000 at its worst. Facing extreme budget shortfalls, legislators passed House Bill 585 in 2014, and Senate Bill 2795 in 2021. Chairman Pickett claimed at the time that SB 2795 made approximately 5,700 additional inmates eligible for parole within the next five years, and promoted his plan to process the increased caseload.
Belk, however, does not share Pickett’s agenda, nor that of the legislature. The state’s prison population has exploded since his appointment over the parole board, chiefly as a result of his parole board’s refusal to process applicants.
The prison population at the end of February, one month after his chairmanship, stood at 16,541 individuals. That figure bounced up to 19,166 last month. Prison capacity in Mississippi is only 20,443, according to MDOC’s own records, meaning the state is only 1,200 inmates away from surpassing its limit, despite the legislature’s desperate desire to cut prison costs.
Mississippi Department of Corrections information suggests the inmate population increase has nothing to do with a bump in criminal activity or law enforcement “cracking down” on crime. Records show 9,261 inmate admissions in 2014, the same year the legislators passed House Bill 585. The Mississippi Department of Corrections has since revealed a drop in new admissions, with only 6,421 new admissions for 2021.
With less inmates getting caught up in the justice system, the most likely reason for the population increase is retention, and that comes down to the parole board and Jeffrey Belk.
The average cost of housing a prisoner in Mississippi is $40 a day. Since prisoners don’t take weekends, that’s $14,600 a year. The Mississippi Department of Corrections reports an even higher cost of $18,500 a year per prisoner. But even at a more modest $14k, MDOC’s figures for November would mean 19,166 prisoners gobbling almost $300 million a year if those numbers remain stable. However, MDOC’s numbers will not likely stay stable, but will continue to increase if the Belk bottleneck remains. The total prison population at the end of February was 16,541. That creeped up to 17,118 by the end of May, and then 18,700 by the end of September. It stood at 19,166 at the end of November, an average jump of 1,000 prisoners every three months. At that rate, 19,000 prisoners last month could be 23,000 prisoners by this time next year.
The state of Mississippi is barely able to look after the population it has. More than 100 people died in state prisons between the end of 2019 through 2020, and a federal investigation after a series of riots determined that MDOC had failed to provide prisoners adequate mental health services and protection from physical harm.
But Belk says he’s just not focused on the figures.
“We do pay attention to the numbers, and they’re important,” Belk told the Daily Journal. “But we don’t let that drive our decisions."
Belk claims the previous parole board members were simply not taking their jobs seriously and properly scrutinizing applicants, which artificially raised release numbers.
“If you’ve got a high parole rate and you don’t have parole members present, there’s no way you can be fully looking at and vetting each case that comes before you,” Belk told lawmakers. He added that about 40% of the eligible inmates that come before the board manage to nab a parole, which is a decrease from the 60% parole rate of the same board under Pickett.
Belk omitted the fact that almost 25 percent of Mississippi prisoners are convicted of drug and addiction-related offenses, and that those numbers only got worse this year. The number of people incarcerated for a drug offense increased 30 percent from 3,117 people in January to 4,051 people by September. It does not help that Mississippi typically imposes prison sentences for drug possession that are roughly 15 months longer than the national average.
The state’s lingering “lock ‘em up” mentality is attracting national attention. Prison reform nonprofit fwd.us reported last month that Mississippi now has the highest incarceration rates in the nation, outpacing competitors Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, who once rivaled Mississippi’s incarceration rate but improved their numbers after genuinely following through with comprehensive prison reform. Mississippi’s incarceration rate, meanwhile, is 85 percent higher than the national average, while crime has fallen four times as fast over the last ten years.