OUR OPINION: Sentencing reforms could make justice more precise

The Mississippi House of Representatives’ remarkable agreement on a significant package of criminal justice system reforms on Monday suggests legislators are coming to terms with an incarceration rate that’s too high and a financial cost that’s unsustainable.

The 106-7 vote reflected bipartisanship produced in a year of hard work shaping a bill that both deals realistically with sentencing and maintains the integrity of sentences that must be placed on felons to address justice.

The comprehensive proposal is based on recommendations made by a Criminal Justice Task Force last year, and 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.

Judiciary B Chairman Andy Gipson told fellow House members, “The primary purpose of this legislation is to protect public safety. What we have found is what we have now is not working.”

The new bill walks a sharply marked line to ensure that incarceration is meted out to those criminals who most need it, and something less than full-time long-term incarceration for those judged not to present a violent threat.

The bill would give judges more leeway to sentence offenders to alternatives other than prison, such as house arrest and drug rehabilitation, which is demanding and intrusive but not necessarily confining in the traditional prison sense.

Once sentenced to prison, a person must serve at least one-fourth of the sentence for a nonviolent crime and one-half for a violent offense.

The measure passed against a backdrop of a prison budget that is expected to climb by $266 million, to $601 million, unless effective changes are made.

Mississippi has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation.

The incarceration rate reflects our state’s problematic educational attainment rate and the costly liabilities, including prison costs, arising from that.

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 the law to “a weight-based” system for sentencing.

The reforms are reasonable and come from careful thinking.