Criminal justice bill heads to Bryant

BRYANT

BRYANT

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Criminal justice legislation designed to curb the rapidly expanding state prison budget appears to be headed to Gov. Phil Bryant for the second time this week.

A new version of the legislation passed both chambers of the Legislature on Thursday with minimal opposition.

It had cleared both chambers Monday in what appeared to be the final version to be sent to the governor.

But on Wednesday the legislation was unexpectedly reconsidered and sent back to conference for additional negotiations between legislative leaders.

Language was added to create the crime of marijuana trafficking for possession of a kilogram or more. Under current law, House Judiciary B Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said there is no specific penalty in state law for the sale of a large quantity of marijuana and people were being charged under the possession statute.

“Obviously, sale is more serious than possession,” Gipson said.

Marijuana trafficking will be treated the same as the drug trafficking language for other drugs in the bill with a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum sentence of 40 years.

With the change to add the marijuana trafficking language, the legislation again passed both chambers by overwhelming margins – 105-13 in the House and with no dissenting votes in the Senate. No Northeast Mississippi legislator voted against it Thursday.

The legislation is the result of task force created in a bill authored by House Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, in the 2013 session. The task force included local government officials, members of the judiciary, law enforcement, state officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others. The nonprofit Pew Charitable Trust, a national research group, developed data to help the task force reach conclusions.

“The task force was as broad a group… I was scared to death they would come up with nothing,” Snowden said. “I said they will come up with something great or nothing…. I was pleased with the way it worked out.”

Snowden, an attorney, said he proposed the task force because he saw the need to examine the criminal justice system partially to look for ways to curb costs and to consider concerns from the state’s judiciary that the Department of Corrections was releasing inmates before judges thought it was appropriate. The problem, Snowden said, is that the Legislature through the years, in a effort to save money, had passed a hodgepodge of legislation to give Corrections officials more authority to release inmates.

He said the result is that no one could ascertain how much of a sentence most inmates would serve.

In the bill, the authority to release inmates is taken from the Department of Corrections, but judges are given more discretion, such as imposing house arrest or sentencing an offender to drug court.

“The key is the judiciary must buy in,” Snowden said. He said the bill is “a balancing act” with some of the measures, costing more money, but overall researchers contend the measure will save about $266 million over a 10-year period.

The legislation defines what is a violent crime for the first time in the state’s history and requires a violent offender to serve at least 50 percent of the sentence before being eligible for parole while a nonviolent offender must serve 25 percent.

Bryant, who embraced the recommendations of the task force, said early on he wanted the 2014 session to be focused on public safety.

“We pledged to Mississippians that we would make this the public safety session, and we have worked hard to develop a research-based plan that is tough on crime while using resources wisely where they make the most impact,” the governor said. “This measure is part of our ‘Right on Crime’ agenda, which also includes measures to require DNA testing, create law enforcement strike teams and train more troopers.”

The bill also provides tough sentences for people convicted of selling large quantities of drugs while providing options like drug court for users. The proposal also includes numerous other measures, such as more intensive supervision for people on parole or probation.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com