Criminal justice changes advance in House

djournal-state-news-mississippiThe Associated Press

JACKSON – Mississippi lawmakers are moving forward with bills designed to make the criminal justice system more efficient and less expensive.

Among other things, House Bill 585 and Senate Bill 2784 say anyone convicted of a violent offense would be required to serve at least 50 percent of a sentence, and anyone convicted of a nonviolent offense would have to serve at least 25 percent.

House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, calls these “true minimums.” He said judges often give long sentences now because of uncertainty about how long an inmate will stay in prison. Judges have complained that crime victims are sometimes upset to learn an inmate has been released early.

The bills would give judges more flexibility to give alternative sentences, such as ordering treatment for drug users. They would, for the first time in Mississippi law, specify which crimes are classified as violent, for sentencing purposes. And, Gipson said they would strengthen requirements that victims be notified before an inmate is released from prison.

The bills were approved by committees Thursday, with the House bill moving on to the full House and the Senate bill moving on to the full Senate for debate later. The original version of the House bill is 184 pages long and the Senate bill is 191 pages, but they could grow as they move through the House and Senate.

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, only behind Louisiana, and many legislators say the corrections system has been consuming a disproportionate share of the state budget.

Gipson said if all the changes in the bill are enacted, the state could save $266 million, spread over 10 years. But he cautioned the Judiciary B Committee: “We’re not going to have an immediate drop in the corrections budget.”

A committee of judges, legislators, prosecutors and others spent several months in 2013 studying the criminal justice system to come up with recommended changes for the full House and Senate to consider this year.