Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – A comprehensive package designed to curb the state’s burgeoning prison budget has passed both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature with limited opposition.
On Thursday, the proposal passed the 52-member Senate with three dissenting votes. Earlier this session, on final passage in the House it was approved 104-4.
The proposal, which provides a litany of changes to the criminal justice system ranging from giving judges more sentencing alternatives to limiting the ability of the Department of Corrections to release inmates early, now goes back to the House. The House can accept the changes the Senate made and send it to Gov. Phil Bryant or invite negotiations to hammer out the differences.
It was not clear Thursday what the House leadership would do, but both House and Senate leaders said the differences between the two chambers on the legislation are not major.
The proposal, based on recommendations made by a Criminal Justice Task Force last year, would save about $266 million over a 10-year period, House Judiciary B Chair Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, has said.
The legislative leadership has been careful not to veer too much from the recommendations made by the task force, which included representatives of law enforcement, the judiciary, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The recommendations were designed to be a balancing act of ensuring public safety while holding down prison costs. Significant changes to the task force’s recommendations could skew that balancing act.
“This is a transformative piece of legislation that has been supported by people all across the political spectrum,” said Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, a member of the task force who spearheaded passage of the legislation in the Senate.
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 has the second highest incarceration rate in the country.
“We know that Mississippi must make changes to its criminal justice system if we are to ensure that we are tough on crime while also being smart with taxpayer dollars,” said Gov. Phil Bryant after the legislation passed the Senate on Thursday. “These policies put the victim first while curbing escalating criminal justice costs.”
Bryant was in the Senate chamber Thursday when the legislation was passed.
Attorney General Jim Hood, who also has been active in developing the criminal justice changes, said he is reviewing the legislation to ensure it does not negatively impact victims of crime. Plus, Hood said, “If the bill, as amended, becomes law, then I would like to see some of the savings spent on re-entry facilities and on mental health care in the communities.”
Hood has said such efforts would help curb the number of repeat offenders.
The bill would increase from $500 to $1,000 the threshold to prosecute a property crime as a felony.
It also would:
• Enhance drug courts where people will receive supervision, treatment and testing instead of being sentenced to prison. The legislation also creates a separate drug court for veterans.
• Intensify the supervision of people on parole or probation.
• Impose harsher sentences for people convicted with large quantities of drugs, but seek treatment in some instances for those who are solely users.
• Define what is a violent crime and require a violent offender to serve at least 50 percent of the sentence compared to 25 percent for other criminals.
Working out what crimes to consider violent is one of the differences in what the House and Senate passed.