Justice overhaul clears House

djournal-state-news-mississippiBy Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Changes to the criminal system, designed to hold down exploding prison costs while ensuring tougher sentences for violent offenders and drug traffickers, passed the House on Monday 106-7.

The comprehensive proposal, based on recommendations made by a Criminal Justice Task Force last year, would save about $266 million over a 10-year period, Judiciary B Chair Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, told members of the House.

The bill has the backing of Gov. Phil Bryant, the majority Republican leadership of the Legislature and most members of the minority Democratic Party.

During debate on the floor, Gipson was asked if the main goal of the bill was to reduce prison costs. “The primary purpose of this legislation is to protect public safety,” he responded. “What we have found is what we have now is not working.”

The bill would give judges more leeway to sentence offenders to alternatives other than prison, such as house arrest and drug rehab.

But once sentenced to prison, a person must serve at least one-fourth of the sentence for a non-violent crime and one-half for a violent offense. The recommendations also will put in law for the first time what offenses should be considered violent.

Unless changes are made, Mississippi’s prison budget, which already is more than $335 million per year, is expected to grow in the next decade an additional $266 million. Mississippi already has the second highest incarceration rate in the country.

Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.

Some members expressed concern that under the bill a person could be sentenced as a drug trafficker and receive a sentence from 10 years to 40 years for possessing 30 grams or more of cocaine or many other controlled substances. Some said the threshold to be a trafficker should be more than 30 grams, which is a little more than an ounce.

Efforts to increase the amount in a person’s possession to be considered a trafficker was defeated by a majority of the House.

Gipson said under current law a person possessing as little as a gram of a controlled sentence could be sentenced just like a person possessing 30 grams or more. But the bill would change to law to “a weight-based” system for sentencing. A person possessing less than two grams of cocaine or some other drug would be sentenced from zero to 5 years, for example.

The bill calls for more intense supervision of people on probation and parole and alternatives other than sentences to be imposed on some “technical violations” of parole or probation.

Gipson said a key is to fully fund drug courts across the state and to establish “best practice standards” where people convicted on drug charges could get intense supervision other than a prison sentence.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com