County officials across Mississippi are warning of job losses and deep deficits as local jails are being deprived of the state inmates needed to keep them afloat. . . .The basic story is that when its prisons were filled by the crime wave of the 80s and 90s and the draconian sentences put in place to fight it, Mississippi asked counties to expand their jails and make the space available for state prisoners. The counties were payed a fixed rate per prisoner per day. Of course the counties would not have done this unless they expected to earn a profit. For 15 years they did, and for a few counties that became a key part of their revenue. Now the pie is shrinking, as it were, as the number of new inmates falls and their sentences are shortened. So the various players – state prisons, privately operated prisons, and county jails – squabble over the available funds.
As the wave of mass incarceration begins to recede, the Mississippi controversy has local and state officials talking openly about how harmful locking up fewer people up will be for the economy, confirming the suspicions of those who have argued that mass incarceration is not merely a strategy directed at crime prevention.
So I don't think these county sheriffs are doing anything evil by demanding more prisoners. But I would ask why Mississippi was always able to find the money to lock more people up, but never finds the money for libraries or public schools or public defenders who might have kept some of those men out of jail in the first place. If the money was there to pay for housing prisoners, it ought to still be there for some other state purpose that could employ people as something more useful than prison guards.