Mississippi Legislature

Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, speaks to lawmakers on supporting a conference report in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday.

JACKSON • Mississippi lawmakers passed bipartisan parole reforms Tuesday that could make about 2,000 inmates newly eligible for release, but Gov. Tate Reeves has not indicated whether he will sign the legislation after rejecting a similar proposal last year.

Senate Bill 2795 loosens Mississippi parole regulations, which are among the strictest in the nation and date to the tough-on-crime 1990s. The restrictive laws led to a surge in the prison population, with about two-thirds of Mississippi's 17,000 prisoners still ineligible for early release.

“It’s just a tool we’re using to help (the Mississippi Department of Corrections) to manage behavior, and give these individuals hope," Senate Corrections Chairman Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, told reporters of the bill. "When people get hope, they tend to do better.

"A lot of people are incarcerated because they didn't have no hope in life," Barnett added. "They had nobody to believe in them. So I think a lot of people resort to crimes because there’s no other direction.”

The bill makes two major changes to current parole law:

Those convicted of nonviolent crimes would be eligible when they have served 25% of their sentence or 10 years, whichever is less. Under current law their only option is to serve 25% — which is often much longer than 10 years.

Those convicted of armed robbery are now eligible at 60% of their sentence. Under current law they are never eligible.

Beyond giving prisoners hope, both Barnett and House Corrections Chairman Kevin Horan, R-Grenada, argued the reforms would save state taxpayers money thanks to a smaller inmate population.

Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, worried the bill went too far and goes too easy on violent criminals, adding she did not believe Reeves would sign this year's parole legislation. Northeast Mississippi senators voting against the legislation following a lengthy debate included Kathy Chism, R-New Albany, Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, Neil Whaley, R-Potts Camp and Rita Potts Parks, R-Corinth.

But supporters pointed out the legislation does not result in automatic release of inmates once they become eligible. It simply gives more offenders the possibility of parole. They would still need to demonstrate good behavior and ultimately the five-member Mississippi Parole Board decides if they are released.

“The (prison) programming that’s in place, and the opportunity for parole eligibility will help the (corrections) commissioner to reduce recidivism," said Sen. Daniel Sparks, R-Belmont. "And that’s the goal of the parole bill, to reward good behavior.”

In his veto message last year, Reeves wrote that he opposed the legislation because it would "threaten public safety," and that it removed "reasonable limitations" that had restricted parole for both nonviolent and violent offenders.

Barnett, Horan and others who hashed out the legislation believe they have addressed the governor's concerns — including that they had not conferred with enough criminal justice groups such as prosecutors and police last year.

Barnett said the largest concession lawmakers agreed to this year was to remove parole eligibility for those convicted of murder. Others ineligible for parole under the legislation include sex offenders, human traffickers and drug traffickers.

Horan said he is unsure if Reeves will sign this year's version — both Horan and Barnett said Reeves has not offered any guarantees — but Horan noted lawmakers "went further than addressing his veto concerns, out of an abundance of caution."

“Did I get what I want? No," Barnett said. "Will the governor get what he wants? Probably not. None of us gets what we really want. We don’t live in an absolute society ... We have to start somewhere. We've been going down this (parole reform) road too long not to have a starting point somewhere."

The debate over parole comes as the U.S. Department of Justice continues an investigation into Mississippi's prison system over poor conditions and whether the state has adequately protected prisoners from harm. Lawmakers see parole reform and several other bills as a way to show the feds they are taking action.

Criminal justice reform advocates praised lawmakers for approving the parole bill. The group FWD.us wrote the legislation is a "step towards addressing Mississippi’s incarceration crisis. It will help safely reduce the prison population and save taxpayers millions of dollars."

Steven Randle, director of justice and work for Empower Mississippi, praised the bill as a key strategy to address Mississippi's prison crisis, including its second-highest incarceration rate in the country.

"We can protect public safety, be smart on crime, soft on taxpayers, and provide second chances to those who deserve them," Randle said. "This legislation is a step in the right direction.”

Another pending criminal justice reform proposal, House Bill 796, remains under negotiation between House and Senate leaders in the session's final days. It deals with the state's habitual, or "three strikes," laws.

The legislation would retroactively change Mississippi's sentencing laws so that a nonviolent third felony, such as a drug crime, does not result in the person going to prison for life without parole. It would cap at 15 years the amount of time a person could be penalized for three felonies under the state's habitual laws.

Horan said if that bill passes, it would lead to hundreds of additional inmates becoming eligible for parole — perhaps nearly 3,000 total between the proposed parole and habitual law reforms.

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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