Justice overhaul: 19 recommendations

djournal-crime-news3The Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force, created by the 2013 Mississippi Legislature, made the following 19 recommendations to lawmakers for the 2014 session after an extensive study of the state’s criminal justice system.

1. Institute true minimums Court-ordered sentences must be served at a mandatory minimum of 25 percent for nonviolent offenders and 50 percent for violent offenders. No early-release program can be used until the minimum is served. Those ordered to serve 100 and 85 percent sentences would still have to fully serve them.

As it stands: Judges, attorneys and offenders cannot accurately predict how much of a sentence would actually be served due to early release and earned time programs. Sentences can vary even within the same offense.

2. Eliminate intensive supervision as early-release option To promote clarity in sentencing, Mississippi Department of Corrections would no longer be allowed to release offenders on house arrest. This would not affect a judge’s ability to use house arrest in sentencing.

As it stands: In order to create prison space, MDOC can release offenders on house arrest within 15 months of their earliest release date – if approved by the Joint Placement Board.

3. Clarify violent and nonviolent The legislature would establish a set of violent offenses and use it consistently across all policies that use violence as a sentencing and eligibility factor.

As it stands: Multiple uses of the word “violent” in Mississippi law label different crimes inconsistently, creating confusion in establishing eligibility for parole, habitual offender enhancements and pretrial diversion programs.

4. Develop case plans at time of admission Case plans would be created for all parole-eligible offenders and would include requirements like alcohol and drug treatment or a GED certificate that must be completed before the inmate can be paroled. Inmates who have completed their case plan and required sentence would be automatically paroled. Parole hearings would be restricted to offenders who request hearings or have not completed their requirements.

As it stands: The rate of granted paroles has fluctuated widely and many offenders are denied their first appearance before the parole board in order to make sure they complete treatment and programming deemed necessary for successful re-entry to the community. Their subsequent appearances before the parole board create delays in the system.

5. Enhance victim notification A uniform notification system that alerts all victims 15 days before an offender release would be established, regardless of release or victim type. Notifications would go to all victims registered with MDOC as well as victim assistants in the district attorney’s office where the case originated.

As it stands: Victim notification differs from 30 days, 15 days and 48 hours depending on the type of crime and release, giving some victims more opportunity to prepare or protest and others virtually no time at all.

6. Expand access to incarceration alternatives Exclusions that prevent offenders with felony drug convictions (with the exception of trafficking convictions) from qualifying for alternatives to incarceration like probation or house arrest would be lifted. This would allow judges more discretion in their sentencing.

As it stands: Statutory restrictions limit judges from imposing non-prison sentences, that are often more effective at reducing recidivism, to offenders with prior felony convictions.

7. Expand access to drug court The exclusion that disqualifies offenders with commercial drug offenses and DUI from being enrolled in drug court would be lifted.

As it stands: Many nonviolent offenders whose criminal activity is driven by substance addiction are ineligible for drug court, a proven program targeted at helping to reduce recidivism by fighting substance addiction.

8. Create targeted punishment for property offenses A tiered system for property crime would be developed so people charged with stealing $1,000 don’t serve the same sentence as those charged with stealing $25,000. The felony threshold for property crimes also would be raised to $1,000.

As it stands: Property crimes are not distinguished between different levels of crime, causing disparities in sentences for similar conduct. Any property crime over $500 is considered a felony, a figure that hasn’t been adjusted for inflation in 10 years.

9. Create targeted punishment for drug offenses, focusing most on dealers Punishment for low-level drug possession offenders would be lowered and a weight-based system would be developed for selling drugs to better align sentencing with the seriousness of the offense.

As it stands: Current drug offenses don’t differentiate between addiction-driven and financially driven crimes. An offender convicted of selling one gram of cocaine faces the same sentencing range as someone selling 40 grams.

10. Implement a geriatric parole hearing Parole hearings would be required for nonviolent offenders who are 60 years old or older and have served at least 10 years of their sentences behind bars. This would reduce medical treatment costs and create space.

As it stands: Older prisoners are, on average, more expensive than younger prisoners because of medical costs. Currently, the state houses almost 800 offenders over 60 years old.

11. Establish consistency in “trusty time” Eligibility for trusty time, which gives inmates with trusty status 30 days off their sentence for every 30 days served as a trusty, would be expanded to the offense of possession of narcotics with the intent to distribute. Drug trafficking offenders and habitual offenders would remain ineligible.

As it stands: Trusty time is available to offenders convicted of selling drugs but not to offenders convicted of possession of drugs with intent, a less serious crime.

12. Ensure nonviolent offenders are parole eligible Restrictions on parole for nonviolent offenders sentenced under an enhancement or on lower-level commercial drug offenses would be lifted.

As it stands: Nonviolent offenders who are convicted of enhanced felonies, like selling a controlled substance near a church or school are not parole-eligible.

13. Implement graduated sanctions and incentives Community supervision field officers, like parole officers, would be given authority to implement some sanctions and incentives without going before a judge. Those include ordering increased reporting and drug testing, substance abuse treatment, loss of earned credits and two-day stays in jail. Adversely, they can reduce reporting and give credits for discharge. They must notify the parole board of the actions taken.

As it stands: Community supervision officers are not allowed to respond to a technical violation of community supervision (parole, probation, etc.) such as missing treatment or failing to check in. They must let the conduct slide or pursue a full revocation to prison which often results in an inadequate or disproportionate reaction.

14. Create specialized detention centers for technical violations Offenders who have their parole revoked on technical violations would go to technical violation centers instead of going back to prison. For a first revocation they would serve 90 days at the TVC, 120 for the second revocation and 180 days or be returned to prison for their third revocations.

As it stands: Offenders who violate a technicality of their supervised release are returned to prison for up to the remainder of their sentence.

15. Streamline jail transfers Parolees and probationers would be held in county jails for a maximum of 21 days while awaiting a revocation hearing with the parole board. If not heard, they would be released.

As it stands: Probationers and parolees can be held in county jails for an unlimited amount of time awaiting a parole board hearing. An average wait time in county jail is 45 days and can be much longer, creating a burden for county jails and taxpayers.

16. Institute drug court standards and reporting requirements A set of drug court standard practices and procedures would be adopted to create clarity and consistency in the program from district to district.

As it stands: Mississippi’s drug courts, which exist in each circuit court district in the state, operate independently from court to court.

17. Provide enhanced training for decision-makers and community supervision officers An annual training schedule would be established to provide training on evidence-based practices for parole board members and parole officers and supervisors. The training would be based on nationally recognized guidelines.

As it stands: Decision-makers and supervision officers receive training; the recommendation would organize and establish guidelines for training.

18. Collect performance measures with oversight council A council would be established to monitor recidivism rates, percentage of time served, average length of stay, drug court outcomes and prison population. They would be tasked with making additional recommendations to the Legislature as data is collected.

As it stands: If the recommendations are made into law, the best way to maintain the reforms in the justice system and ensure they continue to be beneficial and cost-saving is to establish a data collection and oversight council.

19. Ensure policymakers are aware of legislative proposal impact A 10-year fiscal impact statement must accompany all future sentencing and corrections legislation.

As it stands: Policymakers are not required to submit a 10-year fiscal impact statement for corrections legislation.

JB Clark