Nonviolent sentencing laws eased by House

By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The Mississippi House voted Monday to ease the state’s truth in sentencing law.

By a vote of 69-52, the House approved legislation that would exempt non-violent offenders from the law, which now requires all people convicted of a felony to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole.

The legislation has passed the House in previous sessions, only to die later in the process. It now goes to the Senate.

The bill would allow nonviolent offenders, such as those convicted of burglary and embezzlement, to be eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of the sentence. People convicted of selling marijuana and prescription drugs also would be eligible for early parole; other drug dealers would not.

Corrections Committee Chairman Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, said too many young people are being ruined for life because of the sentences they are given. He cited a ase in which a person was sentenced to 15-20 years for a first-time marijuana offense.

“You might as well shoot that person,” Malone said. “He will be institutionalized. … There are better ways and cheaper ways to solve this problem.”

He cited home monitoring devices and other work programs.

Others argued that people are receiving fair sentences from judges, and the Legislature should not tamper with that process. Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, as he has in past debates on this issue, told about an aunt who was murdered by a person who had been convicted of three nonviolent crimes.

“From my family's perspective, spend the money to get them off the street,” Formby said.

Rep. Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg, said, “We don't need to let them out. I am not going to go back to Vicksburg and say I let out drug dealers who are killing the kids.”

Malone and others pointed out that the budget for the Department of Corrections has skyrocketed since the truth in sentencing law was passed. He said 6,300 inmates would be eligible for early parole if the legislation becomes law, though it would take the Parole Board literally years to hear all those cases.

The bill was hotly debated for about 80 minutes with Republicans primarily opposing it and Democrats supporting it, though a surprising number of members from each side voted against the majority of their
party.