By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Legislation that was poised to go to the governor making major changes to the state’s criminal justice system was unexpectedly sent back to conference Wednesday to make the sale of more than a kilogram of marijuana a drug trafficking offense.
House Judiciary B Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said the bill, which was the result of a year’s worth of work by a special task force looking for ways to curb rapidly expanding prison costs, was sent back to a conference committee to add “one technical amendment” that he said would make the proposal better.
The proposal passed both chambers of the Legislature Monday with limited opposition and appeared headed to Gov. Phil Bryant, who has expressed support. But it was held on a motion to reconsider in the House, and Wednesday Gipson moved to reconsider the bill to send it back for additional negotiations.
The Senate followed suit later in the day.
Gipson said prosecutors recently pointed out to legislators that there was 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. “Therefore, we made the decision to add a single provision to the bill which will create a new drug trafficking penalty for the trafficking of a kilogram or more of marijuana.”
It 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.
“This change is consistent with the task force recommendations which are designed to focus efforts on targeting drug traffickers and interrupt the supply of drugs in Mississippi,” Gipson said.
The overall bill, which has wide bipartisan support, provides a litany of changes to the criminal justice system ranging from giving judges more sentencing alternatives, including house arrests and drug courts, to limiting the ability of the Department of Corrections to release inmates early. The proposal defines what is a violent crime and ensures that people convicted of violent crimes must serve at least 50 percent of their sentence before being eligible for release, based on good behavior, while nonviolent offenders must serve at least 25 percent.
Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said the bill, including the changes dealing with marijuana, could be taken up again as early as today.