House Corrections Committee Chairman Bennett Malone believes lawmakers have taken great strides in solving the problem of Mississippi's ballooning prison system budget.

He said legislation passed over the last two years will help reduce the inmate population in the Mississippi Department of Corrections, which fuels the cost of the system.

So effective are these measures that Malone, D-Carthage, doesn't expect MDOC Commissioner Chris Epps to approach the 2010 Legislature in January to ask for an estimated $18 million more to finish the budget year.

"That's the reason we did it. To bring that budget down. It's possible we may not run a deficit," Malone said as lawmakers were still working on a finished budget for the fiscal year that begins Wednesday.

Epps disagreed.

"I feel very strongly that I will back for a deficit next January," Epps said.

The corrections budget has grown from $109.6 million in 1994 to $328.2 million for the current fiscal year — much of that increase has been fueled by longer prison stays of inmates sentenced under "truth in sentencing" laws. Those laws require all inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole. Similar laws were passed in other states during the 1990s.

The tough-on-crime stance backfired in the sense that more taxpayer dollars were steered toward escalating prison budgets. In hopes of reigining those budgets, legislators in several states have passed laws to expand house arrest, manage probation and boost incentives for good behavior.

Currently, Mississippi is providing food, clothing, health care and rehabilitation to more than 22,000 offenders.

In the 2009 regular session, Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law a bill that removes the cap on meritorious earned time for inmates. The amount of time an inmate could shave off a sentence through prison jobs or education courses was capped at 180 days. Without the cap, an inmate can continue to earn 10 days a month, said Epps.

Another bill removed the one year limitation on placing certain drug offenders on house arrest. Epps said it's possible 500 inmates could be approved.

In 2008, Barbour signed a bill that made thousands of inmates eligible to be considered for parole.

Epps said it will take more than those bills to remedy MDOC's rising costs. He said other variables are at play.

For instance, Epps said when more inmates are released, it's likely the state's recidivism rate will go up. This is particularly true during a national recession when the job market is tight, and some ex-convicts will resume criminal behavior to get money, he said.

There are also increased food and fuel costs with which MDOC must contend. Health care for the prisoners has increased. Epps said the state's contracts with Wexford Health Sources, Inc., and Health Assurance have consumer price index clauses that call for a 4.5 percent increase for each company.

Epps asked lawmakers for $363 million for the 2010 fiscal year. He knows he won't get that much so he's already working on a plan to operate within his means. Epps said he can save $3 million by closing down units at Parchman and at the facilities in Greene and Rankin counties. He can do that because he has 800 fewer inmates in the system.

"First, I am going to make sure we maintain public safety. I am going to use all these laws and do the very best I can," Epps said. "In the event I can't meet it, I'll be asking for a deficit in January. That's the bottom line."