With the Department of Justice investigating Mississippi’s prison system, criminal justice reform advocates say more reforms that reduce the state’s prison population are needed to prevent a possible federal takeover.
Opponents such as law enforcement and prosecutors counter that effects of possible further changes to the state’s criminal justice system need to be examined more closely before new laws are passed to compliment the ones passed between 2014 and 2019 that have reduced the state’s prison population.
The run of success for criminal justice reform ended this year when Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed Senate Bill 2123 and House Bill 658, siding with law enforcement and prosecutors who had serious concerns about both pieces of legislation.
SB 2123 would’ve allowed inmates ages 65 and older to be considered by the state Parole Board for geriatric parole if their offenses didn’t preclude parole or involve a sex crime. They would also have to serve at least 25 percent of the sentence imposed by the court before becoming eligible for parole.
HB 658 would’ve allowed criminals could have three separate felony convictions erased from their records. In his veto message, the governor said that the limitation on misdemeanor expungements would remain if the bill became law.
He also said that passage of the bill would allow habitual and career criminals to expunge multiple felony convictions, which he said would threaten public safety.
His veto message said the expansion of parole eligibility would threaten public safety and also said that the expansion of geriatric parole for those age 65 and older would allow dangerous offenders to return to the population.
He also said HB 658 was not necessary as a cost savings for taxpayers footing the bill for treating elderly inmates since existing law already allows for the release of inmates with permanent physical medical conditions with no possibility of recovery.
On September 15, the House Judiciary B and Corrections committees held a joint hearing on SB 2123 and issues related to criminal justice reform.
David Safavian is the deputy director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Nolan Center for Justice. He says absent the passage of measures like SB 2123, a possible federal takeover of the state’s prison system could result in tax increases and reduction in government services for Mississippi taxpayers.
“We’re throwing away people who can be redeemed,” Safavian said at the hearing. “We should allow for the possibility for those who are no longer dangerous have an opportunity to make a case. That’s all SB 2123 asks for.”
Hal Kittrell, who is the District Attorney for 15th Circuit Court, which covers Jefferson Davis, Lamar, Lawrence, Marion and Pearl River counties. He said at the hearing that he agreed with the veto and had concerns, including whether the parole board could handle processing a larger number of parolees.
“I think this (SB 2123) was dropped too hastily,” Kittrell said. “I think there are some consequences if it is passed.”
Some of the consequences he said include the release of first, second and third degree murderers, armed robbers and car jackers once they reach age 65, which he says would be a threat to public safety.
Advocates for SB 2123 say that the bill is needed to further reduce the state’s incarcerated population, which still remains third nationally, according to the non-profit Sentencing Project. Doing so would allow more funds to be transferred to improving safety and sanitary conditions for inmates at the state’s prisons.
State Sen. Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, sponsored SB 2123. He told the House committees that previous laws had increased the number of crimes without the possibility of parole and giving these inmates a chance at parole would give them a behavioral incentive.
The DOJ announced the investigation in February into conditions at four of Mississippi’s prisons, where 15 inmates died in a matter of six weeks.
Criminal justice reform started in 2014, when the Legislature passed the first round of criminal justice reform. Coupled with another bill passed in 2018, the state expanded parole eligibility retroactively for non-violent offenders and ended the practice of sending people to prison because of non-payment of fines.
Using Mississippi Department of Corrections statistics sourced from July of each year (the beginning of the new fiscal year), the effectiveness of criminal reform justice can be determined. One of the goals was to reduce the state’s incarcerated population and that goal has been largely accomplished.
The first year after the reforms were passed, the total number of inmates in the state’s prisons decreased from 24,155 in 2014 to 20,951 in 2015. From there, the numbers increased to a peak of 21,521 in 2016 before shrinking to 19,465 as of July 2020.
The total number of convicts in MDOC custody has also shrunk since reaching a 10-year high in 2015 with 65,885. As of July 2020, there are 54,144 convicts in MDOC care, a decrease of 17.4 percent.
The other goal of criminal justice reform was to reduce the number of non-violent offenders housed in the state prisons. Violent offenders represented 46.4 percent of all inmates in Mississippi prisons in July 2013, a year before HB 585 went into effect.
By July 2020, that number increased to 67.52 percent.
The number of parolees and those on probation as a percentage of the total number of offenders in MDOC custody has increased from 57.86 percent in July 2013 to 64.05 in July 2020.
According to the 2019 report issued by the state Criminal Justice Task Force, while the number of ex-convicts returned to prison for non-criminal (technical) violations of their parole increased from 2018 to 2019, progress is being made with consistent declines each year.
Two criminal justice reform bills were signed into law in last year’s session.
Then-Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law HB 1352, also known as the Criminal Justice Reform Act. This bill cleared obstacles for the formerly incarcerated to find work and prevents driver’s license suspensions for not only non-moving controlled substance violations, but also unpaid legal fees and fines.
The new law also updated drug court laws to allow for additional types known as problem solving courts.
Also that year, Bryant signed into law SB 2781, known as Mississippi Fresh Start Act. This bill eliminated the practice of “good character” or “moral turpitude” clauses from occupational licensing regulations, which prohibited ex-felons from receiving an occupational license and starting a new post-incarceration career.