BY BOBBY HARRISON
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The state Senate, with limited opposition Thursday, sent the governor legislation that would ease Mississippi's truth in sentencing law and allow nonviolent offenders earlier parole.
The state's law, which has been described as one of the toughest in the country, kept coming up for discussion this session. Earlier, the bill was debated intensely by both the House and Senate. But on Thursday, the 52-member Senate, with only three dissenting votes, concurred with changes the House had made to the bill and sent it to Gov. Haley Barbour for his signature or veto.
The bill would exempt nonviolent offenders from the truth in sentencing law. Under Mississippi's truth in sentencing law, all people convicted of a felony are required to serve 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole.
The legislation to ease that requirement for nonviolent offenders has passed the House in previous sessions – only to die later in the process. Supporters of the legislation say Mississippi is one of only a few states to place nonviolent offenders under the truth in sentencing law.
The bill would allow nonviolent offenders, such as those convicted of burglary and embezzlement, and some drug dealers, to be eligible for parole after serving 15 percent of their sentence.
“The bill does not turn anybody loose,” said House Corrections Committee Chairman Bennett Malone, D-Carthage. “It allows the Parole Board to consider them if they have done well in prison.”
In earlier intense debate, Rep. Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg, said, “We don't need to let them out. I am not going to go back to Vicksburg and say I let out drug dealers who are killing the kids.”
Malone said he has heard cases of young people getting long prison sentences for relatively minor offenses and having their lives ruined. He said after a person stays in prison for so long he or she is likely “to be institutionalized and become a burden to society.” While a person serving a short sentence might have time to change his or her life upon release.
Plus, he said Mississippi had the second highest percentage of its population in prison. He said housing all the inmates was causing havoc with the state budget. He said the state prison population is growing by 1,000 per year.
During earlier debate on the legislation, opponents of the bill said judges are giving sentences based on the fact that they know people are required to serve 85 percent of that sentence. They said the sentences are fair.
Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, said people are willing to pay to ensure criminals are punished.