Justice reform likely to become law

other_state_govBy Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – A proposal to revamp many aspects of the criminal justice system and to curb growth in the state’s prison population overwhelmingly passed both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature on Monday.

The legislation, almost certain to become law with Gov. Phil Bryant’s signature, was based on recommendations from a criminal justice task force formed by the 2013 Legislature to examine the state’s criminal justice and corrections system.

House and Senate leaders worked out the differences between how the proposal earlier had passed the two chambers and filed a final agreement, called a conference report, on Friday.

On Monday, the conference report passed 104-16 in the House and cleared the 52-member Senate with four dissenting votes. Sen. Nickey Browning, R-Pontotoc, was the only Northeast Mississippi legislator to vote no.

Opponents entered motions to reconsider to prevent the legislation from being sent immediately to Gov. Phil Bryant, who has expressed support for the proposal. But based on the size of the vote in favor of the bill, those motions appear to be little more than a formality.

Sen. Bryce Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said on the Senate floor it is projected that the measure will save the state $266 million over a 10-year period by curbing what has been a rapid escalation in the prisons budget.

Some legislators expressed concern that the measure would be soft on crime. But Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said that was not true.

“It is tougher on crime, but smarter on crime than we have been in the past,” said Gipson.

The legislation provides a litany of changes to the criminal justice system ranging from giving judges more sentencing alternatives for nonviolent offenders, including house arrests and drug courts, to limiting the ability of the Department of Corrections to release inmates early. It 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 non-violent offenders must serve at least 25 percent.

“This is a bill that is going to have profound and dramatic impact on our criminal justice system in a positive way,” Gipson said.

Much of the opposition came from law enforcement and judicial officials in Rankin County who have argued the bill is soft on crime in a number of areas, particularly in terms of allowing judges to impose sentences other than prison for repeat offenders.

Gipson, who represents parts of Rankin County, said the bill was giving judges “who know the facts better than anyone” broad discretion and that he trusts that judges would make decisions that were in the best interest of victims and the community while looking at all options available

Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, who had attended a news conference with Rankin County officials to criticize the conference report earlier that day, retorted, “You seem to think judge is synonymous with king.”

Baker tried unsuccessfully to recommit the bill to conference committee for additional negotiations. Gipson said the bill had the backing of associations representing law enforcement and prosecutors.

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 military veterans.

• Intensify the supervision of people on parole or probation.

• Impose harsher sentences for people convicted with large quantities of drugs, but seeking treatment in some instances for those who are solely users.

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.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com