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March 7, 2014

Miss. Senate OKs version of criminal justice bill

MERIDIAN —     JACKSON — The Mississippi Senate on Thursday advanced a bill that supporters say is designed to make the criminal justice system more efficient and less expensive.

    House Bill 585 is a centerpiece of Republican Gov. Phil Bryant's legislative agenda for 2014.

    Only three senators voted against the latest version of the bill. Because the Senate made some changes, the bill returns to the House for more work in the next few weeks.

    Mississippi has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation. Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said the proposed changes could reduce prison costs by $266 million, spread over 10 years.

    "The cost of corrections in Mississippi is continually going up," Wiggins told his colleagues during a brief debate Thursday.

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

    The bill says 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. They would strengthen requirements that victims be notified before an inmate is released from prison.

    The bill also proposes letting circuit judges establish courts to deal specifically with veterans who are charged with felonies. The bill says that veterans might have post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries or other problems related to their military service. A veterans' court could deal with problems by offering treatment for alcohol dependency, for example.

    "These veterans' treatment courts will provide a valuable service to the men and women who have served this country and want to get back on track," Bryant said in a news release Thursday. "They, more than most, deserve this second chance."

    Wiggins said the package of proposed changes has been endorsed by the Mississippi Bar Association, the state prosecutors' association, the state Baptist association and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

    Some senators expressed concern that the changes could save the state money but increase costs for sheriffs and other local government officials. Wiggins said local governments would be reimbursed for any additional expenses.

    Senators against the bill Thursday were Republicans Nickey Browning of Pontotoc, Josh Harkins of Flowood and Dean Kirby of Pearl.

    Online: House Bill 585: http://bit.ly/1eOGbng

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