Meridian Star

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February 11, 2014

Miss. House approves criminal justice changes

JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi legislators are advancing proposals designed to trim $266 million from the prison budget over the coming decade.

House Bill 585 passed the House 106-7 on Monday and moves to the Senate for more work. A similar proposal, Senate Bill 2784, awaits consideration in the Senate.

A study group made up of judges, prosecutors and other attorneys spent several months in 2013 examining Mississippi's criminal justice system, including prisons. The group recommended the proposals that legislators are considering now.

The bills say anyone convicted of a violent offense would be required to serve at least 50 percent of a sentence, and anyone convicted of a nonviolent offense would have to serve at least 25 percent. The bills would give judges more flexibility to give alternative sentences, such as ordering treatment for drug users. They would also, for the first time in Mississippi law, specify which crimes are classified as violent, for sentencing purposes. And, they would strengthen requirements that victims be notified before an inmate is released from prison.

"We know that Mississippi must make changes to its criminal justice system if we are to ensure that we are tough on crime while also being smart with taxpayer dollars," Gov. Phil Bryant said in a news release after Monday's House vote. "These policies put the victim first while curbing escalating criminal justice costs."

In the mid-1990s, Mississippi enacted a law requiring all inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. The prison population grew rapidly after that, and the state moved away from the 85 percent policy several years ago. The study group found that judges have been giving widely divergent sentences for the same crimes because of uncertainty about how long inmates will serve.

The study group's report cited figures for the state budget year that ended June 30, 2012. It said 24 percent of the nonviolent offenders released that year had served less than 25 percent of their sentence, and 43 percent of the violent offenders had served less than 50 percent of their sentence.

During debate Monday, Rep. Charles Young, D-Meridian, said he's concerned that the bill says a person who has more than 30 grams of illegal drugs could be prosecuted as a drug trafficker and face a sentence of 10 to 40 years in prison. A gram is about equal to a sugar packet. Young said the provision is "designed to cause pain, harm and suffering to those that can least afford it."

The House rejected Young's proposal to set a 500-gram minimum before someone could be charged with drug trafficking.

"I have seen examples of pain, misery and suffering caused by drugs in this state," said House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton.

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