By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Gov. Phil Bryant said at last week’s Neshoba County Fair that his focus during the 2014 legislative session would be on public safety.
But that does not necessarily mean he is talking solely about tougher prison sentences and enhanced law enforcement efforts.
After his speech at the fair, Bryant told reporters that his public safety proposals for the 2014 session, which are still being developed, could include tougher sentences in some instances, but treatment instead of prison time in other instances.
The first-term Republican governor said often there is “a fine line for people needing treatment and people needing to go to prison.”
The governor, a former deputy sheriff, cited tougher sentences, specifically, for people involved in selling prescription drugs and selling and manufacturing crystal methamphetamine. But for people suffering from addiction, he said treatment might make more sense if no other law had been violated.
After the Legislature addressed economic development and jobs during his first year as governor in 2012 and education in 2013, Bryant said public safety is the next logical step. He said in some instances, such as in Jackson, he believes the high rate of crime is negatively affecting economic development.
During the 2013 session, House President Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, was successful in passing legislation to create a task force to look at the state’s sentencing laws and how they impact law enforcement and the Department of
Corrections. In some instances, officials say there are wide disparities among judicial districts in the sentence for the same crime.
Bryant said recommendations from the task force would affect what public safety issues are addressed during the 2014 session.
According to the legislation, the task force is supposed to look at “improving the relationship between the corrections system and the criminal justice system.” The goal is “to prevent, deter and reduce crime and violence, reduce recidivism, improve cost-effectiveness and ensure the interests of justice at every step of the criminal justice system.”
Snowden said he has had complaints from prosecutors and judges that the sentences imposed on criminals are dramatically reduced in some instances by the Department of Corrections. Snowden said he is not blaming Corrections because the
Legislature gives the agency the authority to reduce sentences in some instances – particularly to stay within its budget.
“This is not about being tough on crime,” Snowden said. “But judges and prosecutors ought to have a say. But obviously it must be tempered because Corrections must have a way to manage its population – to provide rewards and punishment.”
The 21-member task force includes Corrections officials, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, legislators and others.
Bryant said he is not opposed to house arrest in some instances, especially for women who might be away from their children if incarcerated.
But he said, “We have to put some more money in the Department of Corrections” to provide the agency enough funds to ensure it has the ability to keep prisoners in custody. “Each year we have a tendency to underfund the Department of
Corrections … It is unfortunate, but Corrections is something we have to put money into.”
The governor also said funds will be needed in 2014 for a new Highway Patrol trooper class. And he also suggested creating a task force of state law enforcement to provide assistance to local communities when it is requested.