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

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Anthony Devlin, Associated Press

Advocates say the current criminal justice reform bill working its way through the Legislature is good but could be much better if it addressed prison populations and benefited more low-income people. 

As legislators hammer out final details of a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill behind closed doors this session, advocates say they aren’t satisfied with what they’ve seen so far.

Lawmakers are shaping a set of criminal justice reform proposals through HB 1352, aptly named “The Criminal Justice Reform Act.” The bill has passed both the House and the Senate, and a handful of lawmakers will draft a final version in conference that will go back to both chambers for a vote.

Consistent in earlier versions of the bill are plans to expand the state’s drug court system, to allow judges to help more people get old convictions removed from their records, and to eliminate the mandatory suspension of driver’s licenses over controlled substance violations unrelated to driving a vehicle or unpaid fines and fees.

Though many advocates for reform support the bill, some say the current version of the legislation is limited to re-entry measures and will not actually reduce Mississippi’s prison population. The state has the third highest incarceration rate in the nation.

“These are reforms that will definitely help Mississippians rebuild their lives and contribute to their communities, (but do) not address Mississippi’s incarceration crisis,” said Laura Bennett, a policy manager at the national group fwd.us, which works on criminal justice issues in Mississippi.  

A memo prepared by fwd.us also states that the bill will only have a limited impact on low-income residents. For example, the change that would allow more people to have their criminal records expunged – erased in the eyes of the law – still requires folks to pay off all of the fines and fees associated with convictions they want to remove from their records.

Some of the changes advocates are pushing for were included in a more ambitious bill that originated in the Senate and died on the Senate calendar.

That bill would have limited the time people can spend on post-release supervision or probation to two years, waived supervision fees for people determined to be indigent, and ensured that judges do not hand out harsher punishments for people with prior convictions older than ten years. 

Pastor CJ Rhodes of Clergy for Prison Reform cites those as representing potential bold and comprehensive reforms to the state’s justice system.

“It’s a further step in the right direction, but not the quantum leap Mississippians languishing in a broken system deserve,” Rhodes said in a statement about current efforts by lawmakers.

State public defender Andre de Gruy said treating simple possession of controlled substances as the state does with DUIs, by counting the first two offenses as misdemeanors, “could cut the drug offense population in half rather quickly,” helping to safely reduce the overall number of people in state custody.

Some new measures have also been added over time to the current bill, like a component that would require sheriffs to help maintain a centralized database of information on people held in county jails.

In committee meetings, lawmakers have said that the reforms considered this year are aimed at people who have committed nonviolent crimes.

“Honestly, I haven’t even read it because it doesn’t even apply to anybody that I know,” said Jennifer Davis, an advocate for prison reform who says she works mostly with violent offenders and their families.

James Robertson, who works on criminal justice issues for the group Empower Mississippi, said although he would have liked to have seen sentencing reforms remain in the current version of the bill, he considered it to be “overall, very strong,” he said.

“I’ve been very encouraged by the degree to which legislators, the governor, the speaker, lieutenant governor, have all supported this bill and the ideas behind it,” Robertson said.

Gov. Phil Bryant has repeatedly indicated he will back criminal justice reform this session.

Last year, the governor said he supported measures including lifting the mandatory suspension of driver’s licenses for controlled substance violations not related to operating motor vehicles, and making medication-assisted treatment available to drug court participants. 

Those were two proposals in a bill that Bryant vetoed over a separate provision to require the Mississippi Department of Corrections to assess whether people on community supervision can actually pay the required $55 monthly fee when they report to their probation officers.

Such a change would “cause a financial and operational hardship on the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” which could then potentially lose millions of dollars, he wrote in his veto message.

The deadline for most bills to come out of conference is April 1.