THE MISSISSIPPI Legislature has moved forward some more criminal justice reform bills in this year’s session. Bills that change the way the state grants parole and reform the habitual sentencing laws (known as the three strikes policy) are still alive as the session reaches an end.
Steven Randle, director of Justice and Work at Empower Mississippi, said the ultimate goal of criminal justice reform is to decrease the state’s incarcerated population while at the same time increasing a workforce participation rate that is the nation’s worst at 56 percent.
The workforce participation rate is a key indicator since it measures those of working age actively looking for work in addition to those already employed (with those institutionalized in prisons, nursing homes or mental hospitals omitted).
“We started off with some very big goals, trying to refine parole laws and expungement,” Randle said. “We lost expungement, but hopefully next year, that will be something that comes back around. We’ve got the parole bill and habitual bill both in conference and I think where those bills stand right now we’ve addressed a lot of the governor’s concerns from his veto message last session.
“We’re hoping that things are going to sail through conference so that we can get something on his (governor’s) desk that he will sign and release some of the ills that Mississippi is facing as far the prisons are concerned.”
Senate Bill 2795 and House Bill 525 would change the way the state does parole. Non-violent offenders would be eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentence and violent offenders would be eligible after serving at least 50 percent of their sentence. SB 2795 is sponsored by state Sen. Juan Barnett, D- Heidelberg and HB 525 is sponsored by state Rep. Kevin Horan, R-Grenada.
The bills differ in that the Senate bill has language that would have violent offenders serve at least 50 percent of their sentence or 20 years, whichever is less that isn’t contained in the House version.
A similar bill last year was vetoed by Gov. Tate Reeves over the geriatric parole provision that was removed from the two bills submitted this year. Both will be headed to conference as the chambers seek a compromise.
HB 796 would reform the state’s “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing guidelines to ensure that a non-violent third offense wouldn’t result in an offender being issued a life sentence without parole. It is sponsored by state Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth and is headed to conference.
Two other bills, HB 551 and HB 196, are also headed to conference. HB 551 would allow ex-convicts to obtain driver’s licenses, while HB 196 would require the state’s penitentiaries to provide a basic standard of healthcare for pregnant women who are incarcerated. Both of those were also sponsored by Bain and are in the conference process as well.
NOT ALL OF initiatives survived the process. An expansion of the 2019 Fresh Start Act, SB 2792, died on a point of order on March 11 in the House after passing unanimously in the Senate.
The bill would’ve expand- ed the act to more occupational licenses to include all licenses and allow licensure boards and commissions to determine whether a crime committed by an applicant was related to the occupation they regulate. The bill also would’ve allowed an applicant to ask a board or commission whether a past criminal offense would keep them from getting a license.
There were several bills dealing with expunging convictions from permanent records, including HB 122 that would’ve allowed up to three felony convictions from being expunged after 15 years, but all died in committee. Randle says the next step is to get some legislation passed on re-entry programs, which are designed to help ex-cons get training and allow them to get a job to reduce recidivism.
These programs would also work in tandem with the plans of Department of Corrections Commissioner Nathan “Burl” Cain, who intends to provide vocational certification for inmates before their release from MDOC custody.