JACKSON • Top lawmakers involved in criminal justice reform efforts are placing the bulk of their resources next legislative session on creating reentry programs to help formerly incarcerated citizens adjust better to society.
The leaders of the Corrections and Judiciary Committees convened a joint hearing on Thursday, and solicited input from education leaders, prison leaders, legal advocates and reentry program experts.
Lawmakers did not have many specifics about what reentry programs may look like, but agreed that if individuals don’t have a job or adequate housing once they are released from incarceration, they’ll likely wind up back in jail in the future.
“Reentry has to be addressed,” Senate Corrections Committee Chair Juan Barnett, told the Daily Journal. “We can’t continue to parole, parole, parole without reentry. You can’t have one independent of the other. Both have to work together.”
Barnett, D-Heidelberg, said that he and other leaders will conduct around four hearings to examine how other states and private organizations are conducting their own programs.
State Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth, told the Daily Journal that he anticipates lawmakers will introduce one large, omnibus bill to tackle the reentry programs.
“Of course that can change, but right now, that’s what I see happening,” Bain said.
A major piece of legislation that initially gained some traction, but ultimately died on the legislative calendar earlier this year year was the creation of a reentry court, which would allow individuals recently released from prison to receive assistance from the courts in readjusting to society.
State Rep. Kevin Horan, R-Grenada, said he wants to try to make hard push this year to reintroduce that proposal to create the court.
Last year, lawmakers made substantive efforts to loosen the state’s parole regulations and reduce Mississippi’s crowded prison population.
The Mississippi Earned Parole Eligibility Act that went into effect in July loosened several of the state’s parole regulations, which are among the strictest in the country. The law made around 2,000 inmates eligible for release.
Under the new law, 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 year, even as some Republican lawmakers feared that the law would endanger the safety of some Mississippi communities.
With now a likely increase in more inmates released on parole on the horizon, the question of how to adequately pair formerly incarcerated citizens with needed resources for employment is more serious.
Bradley Lum, the CEO of Mississippi Prison Industries, said that he and other company leaders established a program called the HOPE Alliance that created a uniform system for establishing programs for inmates to participate in while incarcerated and a system that tried to pair released inmates with private companies for employment.
“Let’s stop with our felons living in the dark,” Lum said. “Let’s ensure we’re putting them in a position where they know they can go.”