Criminal justice reform to address ‘low-hanging fruit,’ but specifics still unknown

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Mississippi House of Representatives

Rep. Bill Kinkade, R-Byhalia

Despite the halls of the Capitol buzzing for several weeks about a new criminal-justice reform effort coming down the pike, lawmakers at a recent hearing provided no specific information about what such legislation might contain.

Representatives from the state’s criminal-justice system are pushing for a third round of reforms following key efforts in 2014 and 2018. Corrections officials say that savings from the reduction in the state’s prison population as a result those measures have not been re-invested to help prisoners re-enter the community, prison programming and mental health and addiction treatment.

“We in Mississippi have not seen the full material fruits of that labor in this state,” said Pelicia Hall, the state corrections commissioner. Hall told a joint meeting of the House and Senate corrections committees that Mississippi should follow models in states like Louisiana by creating a dedicated fund for savings in incarceration to go back into the justice system instead of the state’s general treasury.

House corrections Chairman Bill Kinkade, R-Byhalia, told reporters after the hearing that he and attorneys were working on a placeholder bill, a tool lawmakers sometimes use to advance legislation despite the language not being finalized

“We’re just going to deal with low-hanging fruit,” said Sen. Sampson Jackson II, D-Preston, who chairs the Senate Corrections Committee, rather than addressing violent offenders such as rapists.

In the months leading up to this session, legislators and Gov. Phil Bryant hinted at measures such as revising the state’s sentencing laws and changing how people can expunge their criminal records.

Speakers at Monday’s hearing pushed for reforming cash bail, reducing the amount of time people spend on probation and parole and equipping former prisoners with skills and resources to avoid returning to prison after their release.

The hearing included representatives of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, the state prosecutors association, a federal and state judge and the state sheriff’s association as well as advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center.