During Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s remarks at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s 20th anniversary gala, he highlighted how Mississippi has relied on many of the same policies as Texas – principally, low taxes, limited spending, and tort reform – to enhance its competitiveness. Interestingly, under the Barbour administration, Mississippi has also progressed on criminal justice reform.

Barbour signed the Mississippi Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which parallels many of the policies Texas has implemented in the last few years. The Act emphasizes less expensive community-based alternatives to incarceration and vocational programs that redirect youths from crime into the workforce. Just as legislation passed in 2007 in Texas disallowed misdemeanors from being incarcerated at the Texas Youth Commission, the Mississippi law prohibited the incarceration of status offenders. This refers to conduct, such as possession of alcohol, that is a crime only because it is committed by a minor.

Over the last two years, changes in administrative polices have reduced the number of Mississippi prisoners in solitary confinement from more than 1,000 to 130. This lowers costs because less space is required when there are two prisoners to a cell and there is a reduced need for prison guard time. When an inmate is in solitary confinement, a prison guard must transport each inmate individually from their cell to meals and the restroom.

More importantly, a study of Washington state inmates found that those released to the public from solitary confinement, controlling for all other factors, had a significantly higher recidivism rate. In Texas, as in many other states, inmates in solitary confinement are not eligible for educational or vocational programs, but simply sit in their cell for 23 hours a day.

Texas has approximately 10,000 inmates in solitary confinement and more than 1,000 are released directly from solitary confinement. A key component of the new policy on solitary confinement in Mississippi is precise criteria for what behavior justifies entry into solitary confinement and exit form it. In Texas, many inmates are placed in solitary confinement simply for alleged gang membership, even though they have not misbehaved in prison.

If Texas adopted the Mississippi approach and achieved even a more modest reduction in solitary confinement, it could save millions of dollars by closing a prison unit or a wing of a unit.

– Marc A. Levin