Criminal justice reforms focus on drug courts, expungement

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David Goldman, Associated Press

Jessica Morgan, bottom, reads on her bunk while sitting in her cell in Tennessee. Morgan represents a trend in sharply rising incarceration rates of women across the U.S., including in Mississippi.

Lawmakers in the House debuted a limited set proposed of criminal justice reforms that could reshape and expand the state’s drug courts and make more people eligible to have criminal convictions removed from their records.

The House Judiciary B committee heard details of H.B. 1352 on Wednesday by its author, Rep. Jason White, R-West. The bill is titled “The Criminal Justice Reform Act.”

Among the changes proposed in the current draft of the bill:

  • Changing the name of drug courts to intervention courts, an umbrella term that would also include mental health courts and veterans courts, and requiring judges to waive any drug court fees for indigent individuals. The bill would require medication-assisted treatment to be an option within drug courts. The proposed mental health and veterans courts would run akin to how drug courts currently run, operating as pretrial diversion programs.
  • Requiring intervention courts to provide assessments to people with two or more DUI convictions to determine if they would benefit from medication-assisted treatment for alcohol dependence. If so, the courts could then refer individuals to rehabilitation programs.
  • Limiting the automatic revocation of driver’s licenses. People who do not pay fines or fees or respond to summonses or citations relating to traffic violations would not have their licenses automatically revoked. Courts could collect fines, fees or assessments for traffic violations if someone has not paid them within 90 days of receiving a notice. People would not have their driver’s licenses automatically suspended for controlled substance violations unrelated to operating motor vehicles.
  • Expanding crimes eligible for expungement, or removal from a person’s criminal record. The bill would make traffic violations eligible for misdemeanor expungement, and make all felonies expungeable except certain violent crimes, first degree arson, trafficking in controlled substances, felon in possession of a firearm and failure to register as a sex offender. However, individuals could only petition the court to expunge convictions stemming from one “nucleus” of facts or set of charges, White said, pointing to instances where prosecutors “throw the book” at defendants. Judges would still oversee expungements. Currently, only the following crimes can be expunged: false pretenses, larceny, bad checks, possession of controlled substances or paraphernalia, malicious mischief and shoplifting.
  • Preventing occupational licensing boards from automatically denying licenses to individuals because of a nonviolent criminal conviction occurring three or more years prior to the application of the license.
  • Redirecting savings by the Mississippi Department of Corrections into a dedicated fund for programming intended to defray probation, parole and re-entry/rehabilitation programming expenses. The agency has seen a reduction of $45 million in spending since H.B. 585, a set of sentencing and corrections reforms aimed at cutting prison populations, was enacted in 2014, corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall said at a recent joint corrections hearing. Unlike states like Louisiana and Texas, Mississippi has yet to put those funds into re-entry purposes, Hall told lawmakers.

Rep. Stacey Wilkes, R-Picayune, expressed concern over expanding expungements, noting that business owners may not know who they are hiring, such as if an employer hired someone with an expunged embezzlement conviction to hire money.

Wilkes wondered if reforms should involve “trying to prevent things on the front end instead of not having any consequences on the back end,” she said.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Jason White, R-West.

Rep. Kevin Horan, D-Grenada, asked about a constituent who had two separate drug convictions in 2008 and 2010 but has led a clean life since. White clarified that under the bill’s proposed changes, only the first conviction would be eligible for expungement.

White and committee chair Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, say they are still working on the bill to present the full House with a good “product.”

White’s bill does not make changes to issues discussed by lawmakers at a criminal justice reform summit in December, including reducing the the maximum time a person can spend on post-release supervision or probation from five to two years and creating graduated sanctions for probation violations, which are included in a Senate bill sponsored by Rep. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, called the “Back-to-Work Act.

Recently, legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Phil Bryant have pushed for another wave of criminal justice reforms this session following the passage of two bills, in 2014 and 2018, that aimed at cutting prison populations and costs, reducing sentences and eliminating the use of debtors’ prisons.