Lawmaker Pushes For Shorter Prison Sentences

Roger Ishee is sponsoring a bill that would allow non-violent prisoners to serve shorter sentences rather than the required 85 percent. Ishee's bill targets drug and property offenders.

Sharell Williams is serving part of his ten year embezzlement sentence not behind state prison walls, but working at the Long Beach Police Department. He is one of the non-violent offenders that Ishee says should receive shorter sentences to clear out overcrowded state prisons. The Long Beach Chief agrees.

"To be realistic about it, the non-violent offenders, most likely they're going to have to start releasing some of them, and we're not totally against that as long as their release includes some sort of rehabilitation and some type of work program that they can be productive to society," Chief Tom Bishop says.

As of last September, there were more than 20,000 inmates in prisons around the state. The department of corrections budget totals more than $250 million. The corrections department says shorter sentences would reduce the inmate population by more than 2,000 people a year.

Despite those numbers, not all law enforcers are for letting drug offenders out early.

"But these particular people are the same people who are breaking in the houses, breaking in the cars, stealing things within the community, and they cause a lot of problems," Bay St. Louis Police Chief Frank McNeil says.   "So to early release these people is not necessarily going to solve our problems."

McNeill says if the legislature okays shorter sentences, it should also put in place some sort of screening to track inmates.

"Who's to say a guy breaks into a house, he's a non-violent offender at this time but breaks into a house and encounters someone and maybe becomes a violent offender, so I don't think that's the answer to the problem.  I think there are other answers, but that's not it."

But Representative Ishee says the corrections budget has tripled in the last ten years...and spending more money year after year to build more prisons isn't the answer either.

House Bill 166 passed out of committee Thursday.  The full house still must vote on the measure.