Prison Unrest Mississippi

JACKSON • Mississippi lawmakers are pushing through several major criminal justice reform bills in the final days of the legislative session as they face pressure from federal authorities and advocacy groups to improve the state's notoriously poor prison conditions.

The Magnolia State has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country, and a bill loosening and clarifying parole eligibility would help reduce the prison population. Other measures would reign in the state's extreme penalties for habitual offenders, and ensure women inmates are treated with dignity during a pregnancy.

Lawmakers are keenly aware that reforms are needed considering the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the prison system over poor conditions at four facilities — including whether the state has adequately protected prisoners from harm. Federal prosecutors launched the probe after a string of inmate deaths in late 2019 and early 2020.

But legislators also know they must pass a final product that Gov. Tate Reeves will sign.

Last year Reeves vetoed two major criminal justice bills — including parole reform legislation he said was "well-intentioned" but went "too far." He cited concerns from prosecutors and police over whether the legislation would risk public safety by releasing people with violent records.

The legislative session is expected to finish early this week, and small groups from the House and Senate are continuing to hash out differences on key pieces of legislation heading into this weekend — including the bills addressing parole and habitual offenders.

Here's what to know about three of the criminal justice reform proposals:

Parole reform

About two-thirds of Mississippi prisoners are not eligible for parole. That's the result of policy changes in the mid-1990s, when Mississippi lawmakers and other states passed legislation that drastically increased the amount of time that offenders needed to serve before they became eligible.

Eligibility requirements were loosened slightly starting more than a decade ago, but "the vast majority of people in prisons across the state — more than 12,000 individuals — remain ineligible for a parole hearing," according to a recent report by FWD.us, a reform advocacy group.

The restrictive parole laws have led to a huge surge in Mississippi's prison population over the years, the group noted.

The Mississippi Earned Parole Eligibility Act, or Senate Bill 2795, offers more clarity on who is eligible for parole, and when, while also applying the updated regulations retroactively to those already in prison, according to Sen. Daniel Sparks, R-Belmont.

Sparks, one of the authors of the bill, told the Daily Journal the final legislation is expected to make nonviolent offenders eligible after they have served 25% of their sentence, with some violent crimes eligible at 50%, and others higher.

"The big issue is if you don't have an eligibility date, if you don't have a parole date, if you're doing day for day sentence, it's hard to put programming in place that (inmates are) motivated by," Sparks said.

The legislation, he said, will give some prisoners hope and encourage good behavior.

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Lawmakers have conferred on the final language with law enforcement, prosecutors, and Reeves' staff, Sparks said, in order to find consensus. "I think we're really close on it," he said Friday.

Habitual offender, or 'three strike' law

Like the state's strict parole laws, its habitual sentencing laws — known elsewhere as "three-strike" laws — have roots in the tough-on-crime era of the 1990s. A recent FWD.us report found the state's habitual laws have resulted in extremely long sentences, often for minor drug crimes.

The group also said that the state's habitual laws have come at a high price for taxpayers. FWD.us identified 78 people serving life sentences for drug crimes under the state's three-strike who were sentenced to a combined 4,668 years in prison, at an estimated cost of nearly $70 million.

"It's bad policy," Sparks said. "It's bad economic policy, and it's bad justice policy."

House Bill 796 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.

"There are 86 people in the Department of Corrections that are doing life imprisonment on a drug charge," said Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth, the bill's author. "Those people would not be doing life in prison" under the proposed legislation.

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Bain said Thursday he expected the legislation to win approval after a few more tweaks.

Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act

The language of House Bill 196, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, includes several facts that demonstrate why the legislation is needed: The number of imprisoned women in Mississippi has increased by a third in two decades, and nationally about 2,000 women give birth while in prison each year. Prison housing conditions, including restraints such as shackles, can have negative health effects on the mother, fetus and infant, the legislation notes.

Bain, the bill's author, says the legislation would ensure pregnant women are provided feminine hygiene products, and that they are not shackled or cuffed. It would also give the mother time with the baby after delivery, and later, it would require the mother to be housed as close as possible to where the infant stays.

Nationwide the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled since 2001. A mom in prison makes her children more likely to be incarcerated one day, research says. Bain said the bill also addresses this issue by ensuring inmates who are parents are placed within 250 miles of their children, and ensures visits are readily available.

"I thought it was the right thing to do," Bain said of the legislation. "This was a relatively easy lift, in terms of sending a message to the Department of Justice that we're serious about improving our standards in our prisons."

The bill passed both chambers this week and is awaiting Reeves' signature.

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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