/Criminal justice reform progress applauded but advocates say it’s a step, not ‘the leap’ Mississippi needs

Criminal justice reform progress applauded but advocates say it’s a step, not ‘the leap’ Mississippi needs

Through HB 1352 (aptly named “The Criminal Justice Reform Act”), lawmakers are creating a series of criminal justice reform proposals. A few lawmakers will draft a final version of the bill in conference, which will be resubmitted to both chambers for a vote. The bill’s earlier versions included plans to expand the state’s drug court system to enable judges to assist more people in getting old convictions removed from their records. It also proposes to abolish the mandatory suspension of drivers licenses for controlled substance violations that are not related to driving a car or paying fines and fees. Although reform advocates support the bill, others claim that the current legislation only addresses re-entry and won’t reduce Mississippi’s prison population. Mississippi has the third-highest incarceration rate in America. “These reforms will certainly help Mississippians rebuild and contribute to their community, (but don’t address Mississippi’s prison crisis,” Laura Bennett, policy manager for fwd.us which works on Mississippi criminal justice issues, said. A memo from fwd.us states that the bill will have limited effect on residents with low income. The bill would allow more people to have criminal records exonerated – meaning that they will be legally erased – but it still requires them to pay all the fees and fines associated with any convictions they wish to expunge. Some of the changes that advocates want were part of a more ambitious bill, which was passed by the Senate but died on the Senate calendar. The bill would have put a limit on the amount of time that people can spend on probation or post-release supervision. It also waived fees for supervision for those deemed indigent. And it ensured that judges don’t give harsher sentences to people with previous convictions more than ten years ago. These are potential reforms to the state’s justice system, according to Pastor CJ Rhodes from Clergy for Prison Reform. Rhodes stated that “it’s a further move in the right direction but not the quantum leap Mississippians languishing inside a broken system deserves.” He also spoke out about the current legislative efforts. Andre de Gruy, the state public defender, stated that simple possession of controlled substances should be treated as DUIs. By counting the first two offenses in misdemeanors, it could reduce the number of drug offenses by half, helping to reduce state custody. The current bill has also included new measures, such as a requirement that sheriffs maintain a central database of information about people in county jails. The reforms being considered this year were aimed at those who have not been convicted of violent crimes, according to lawmakers. Jennifer Davis, a prison reform advocate who claims she works mostly with violent offenders as well their families, said that “Honestly, it’s not even something I’ve read.” James Robertson, who is a member of Empower Mississippi and works on criminal justice issues, stated that although he would prefer to see sentencing reforms in the current bill, he believes it to be “overall very strong.” Robertson stated that he was encouraged by the support shown by legislators, the speaker, governor and lieutenant governor for this bill and its ideas. Gov. Phil Bryant repeatedly stated that he would support criminal justice reform in this session. The governor stated last year that he supports measures such as lifting the mandatory suspension of drivers’ licenses for controlled substance violations, which are not related to operating motor vehicle, and making medication assisted treatment available to drug court participants. Bryant vetoed a separate clause that required the Mississippi Department of Corrections assess whether community supervision clients can pay the $55 monthly fee. He wrote that such a change would cause “a financial and operational hardship to the Mississippi Department of Corrections”, which could lead to the loss of millions of dollars. April 1st is the deadline for most bills to be submitted to conference.