Parchman prison. Jan. 15, 2020.

A prison-reform group founded by rappers JAY-Z and Meek Mill along with Patriots owner Robert Kraft is calling for Mississippi lawmakers to override Gov. Tate Reeves’ veto of a criminal justice bill that would have made thousands of inmates eligible for parole.

But it’s unclear whether lawmakers – particularly in the Senate – could muster the two-thirds vote to override Reeves’ veto of Senate Bill 2123. A Mississippi Legislature has not overridden a governor’s veto since 2002, when then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove vetoed budget bills.

“This veto serves as just the latest example of how Gov. Reeves has continued to fail the incarcerated population in the state,” the REFORM Alliance said in a statement. “… REFORM Alliance (is) urging the Legislature to override Reeves’ veto and enable thousands of people in Mississippi prisons to seek parole, reduce prison overcrowding amid the COVID-19 crisis and save taxpayers upwards of $45 million.”

Mississippi, with the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, faces a prison crisis with overcrowding, high death rates, violence and deplorable conditions. It faces lawsuits and is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Much of the problem stems from Mississippi’s harsh sentencing laws passed in the mid-1990s and from lack of rehabilitation and reentry programs.

Reform legislation this year had broad bipartisan support, including from numerous conservative groups such as Empower Mississippi, American Conservative Union, Right on Crime and Americans for Prosperity.

Senate Bill 2123 was the centerpiece of this year’s reform. It would have created consistency in parole eligibility, allowing non-violent offenders eligibility after serving 25% of their sentences and some violent offenders eligibility after serving 50% of their sentences or serving 20 to 30 years, depending on what years they were sentenced.

The parole board would have final say, with supporters of the reform saying it would have restored parole board control over granting parole to levels similar to the early ‘90s, before prison population exploded from tough-on-crime laws created harsher sentences and clamped down on parole eligibility.

The legislation was expected to provide parole eligibility to around 2,000 inmates and to save the state about $45 million a year in corrections costs.

“There were lots of safeguards in place,” said House Judiciary B Chairman Nick Bain, R-Corinth, who helped pass the now-vetoed legislation. “This is just eligibility, yes, the parole board would have final say. I think that got lost in this.”

Senate Judiciary B Chairman Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said the reform was “good, conservative legislation.”

“I have heard from people all across the political spectrum, particularly in Republican conservative circles on how they were disappointed (in the veto).”

But Reeves, echoing what some conservative lawmakers and groups opposed to the legislation argued, said the reforms were well intentioned but “went too far” and would result in dangerous criminals on the street.

Both Bain and Wiggins said they know of no concerted effort at the moment to whip votes for a veto override. The Legislature is currently in limbo with unfinished business from the 2020 session and multiple Reeves vetoes, because of a COVID-19 outbreak among lawmakers and Capitol staffers.

Senate Bill 2123 passed the House 78-29, with what appears to be a veto-proof majority. But in the Senate it fell short of a two-thirds majority, passing 25-17.

While most other groups advocating for Mississippi criminal justice reform have not joined the REFORM Alliance in calling directly for a veto override, they still urge state leaders to deal with the prison crisis. Some hope Reeves might call a special legislative session and help push for reform.

“Clearly we are in the middle of a prison crisis and it went unaddressed during the regular session,” said Empower Mississippi President Grant Callen. “We’ve heard there’s growing momentum for an override, but we think a special session would be the most productive way to address the issue.”

Reeves also vetoed another criminal justice reform measure, House Bill 658, aimed at helping convicts re-enter society and the workforce by increasing the number of expungements for felonies people could get after serving their sentences and a five-year wait from one to three.

Reeves said allowing people to erase multiple felonies from their records would result in “career criminals walking around with no records.”

But Wiggins, a former prosecutor, said, “People fail to realize that expungement is a valuable tool in the criminal justice system.

“It allows people to get back to work after they’ve served their sentences and not be hamstrung by something that happened years ago,” Wiggins said. “It is a tool that reasonable prosecutors and judges can use to hold people accountable – understanding non-adjudication is not allowed for violent offenses … If we are fully committed to allowing people to get back to work and not being a drain on society, this is a tool to do that.”

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.