Tate Reeves bill signing

In this March 11, 2021, file photo, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves speaks with reporters after signing a bill at the Capitol in Jackson. A new Mississippi law will make more inmates eligible for the possibility of parole. Gov. Reeves signed Senate Bill 2795 on Thursday, April 22, 2021, and it becomes law on July 1.

JACKSON • Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law Thursday significant parole reforms that could make around 2,000 inmates newly eligible for release, a year after rejecting a similar bipartisan bill from lawmakers.

The Mississippi Earned Parole Eligibility Act will take effect in July, loosening several of the state's parole regulations, which are among the strictest in the country. The laws have led to a ballooning prison population over the years with roughly two-thirds of Mississippi's 17,000 prisoners serving sentences that make them ineligible for parole, according to the advocacy group FWD.us.

In vetoing last year's bill, Reeves said it went too far and would "threaten public safety" by potentially releasing violent inmates.

On Thursday, Reeves wrote that he was also conflicted about this year's version as he weighed the need for a "measured approach to 2nd chances" while avoiding a "knee-jerk reaction" that could harm public safety. He said ultimately the tweaks lawmakers made to this year's version were sufficient.

"This bill expands parole eligibility for some — but it does not guarantee it! And not all are eligible — we were able to ensure 1st and 2nd degree murderers can’t get it," Reeves wrote. "Non-violents are eligible at 25% but committing a crime while armed gets you at least 60% of your sentence. And no one gets out JUST because they are older. Maybe best of all, habitual offenders are not included in this bill."

The bill would make a few significant changes to parole regulations for inmates who were convicted after June 30, 1995, House Corrections Committee Chairman Kevin Horan, R-Grenada, has said.

Those convicted of nonviolent crimes after that date will now be eligible for parole when they have served 25% of their sentence or 10 years, whichever is less. Under current law their only option is to serve 25% — often much longer than 10 years.

People convicted of some crimes such as murder and drug trafficking will remain ineligible under the legislation — last year's version made those convicted of murder eligible. But, those convicted of armed robbery will now be eligible at 60% of their sentence served, when before they were never considered for early release.

The legislation won bipartisan support in both the House and Senate in the final days of the legislative session last month, though several Republicans said they worried this year's version could endanger communities.

Senate Corrections Chairman Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, told reporters last month that loosening the parole laws would give inmates newfound hope, and allow state corrections officials to better manage behavior inside prisons. Horan added the legislation would save taxpayers money by reducing the inmate population.

Prison reform groups praised the final passage of the legislation.

“These reforms will help Mississippi begin to address its dangerously high prison population and high imprisonment rate," Alesha Judkins, state director for FWD.us, said in a statement. "By expanding parole eligibility, the state has joined several other Southern states in passing common-sense criminal justice reform measures that have safely reduced prison populations and decreased crime rates at the same time."

Several conservative groups including Empower Mississippi, an organization advocating for limited government, also pushed for the reforms and praised Reeves' decision on Thursday. The legislation comes as the U.S. Department of Justice continues to investigate poor prison conditions at four facilities.

“In signing this bill, Gov. Reeves is helping to address the overcrowding problems created by the Clinton-Biden Crime Bill in the mid-1990s," Empower Mississippi President Russ Latino said in a statement. "It should be seen as a signal to the Department of Justice that we are prepared to get our own house in order, without costly federal intervention. This is a smart on crime, soft on taxpayer conservative reform."

A second major criminal justice reform bill loosening the state's habitual sentencing laws failed to win approval in the legislative session's final hours. The proposal would have retroactively changed Mississippi's sentencing regulations so that a nonviolent third felony, such as a drug crime, does not result in the person going to prison for life without parole. Lawmakers pledge to pursue a similar bill next year.

LUKE RAMSETH is a Jackson-based reporter covering the 2021 session of the Mississippi Legislature for the Daily Journal. Email him at lramseth@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @lramseth.

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