By Emily Wagster Pettus
JACKSON – Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant on Monday signed a bill designed to make the criminal justice system more efficient and less expensive.
Bryant said House Bill 585, which becomes law July 1, will protect public safety and could save the state $266 million in prison expenses, spread over 10 years.
The bill is modeled on criminal-justice changes made in recent years in Texas, Georgia and other states with Republican governors who campaigned as being tough on crime.
The Mississippi bill says anyone convicted of a violent offense will be required to serve at least 50 percent of a sentence, and anyone convicted of a nonviolent offense will have to serve at least 25 percent.
Judges will get more flexibility to impose alternate sentences, such as ordering treatment for drug users. Circuit courts will be authorized to establish treatment programs for military veterans who might have traumatic brain injuries, depression or drug and alcohol problems.
For the first time, Mississippi law will specify which crimes are classified as violent, for sentencing purposes.
Bryant was surrounded by law-enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges and legislators as he signed the bill Monday in the Capitol rotunda. He said he had spoken to Texas Gov. Rick Perry about the Mississippi legislation, and Perry praised it.
“Gov. Perry reminded me that Texas is not soft on crime,” Bryant said.
The Mississippi law will strengthen requirements that victims be notified before an inmate is released from prison. Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said that provision will help families of victims and families of those convicted of crimes.
“I see this bill, actually, as a family-values bill,” said Wiggins, a former prosecutor who was one of the main lawmakers working on the measure.
Mississippi’s prison population grew rapidly after the state enacted a law in the mid-1990s saying each inmate must serve at least 85 percent of a sentence. The state moved away from the 85 percent law several years ago, but Mississippi has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, behind only Louisiana. Many legislators say the corrections system has been consuming a disproportionate share of the state budget.
Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said Monday that because of changes coming with the new law, “Mississippi has positioned itself to no longer be second in the United States of America in incarceration.”
Twenty-one lawmakers, lawyers, judges and prosecutors spent several months in 2013 evaluating Mississippi’s corrections system. Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group, worked with the group and with Bryant to shape the bill the governor signed.