Chairman of the Mississippi Parole Board Steve Pickett speaks to law makers during a joint hearing of the House Corrections and Judiciary B Committees about the current Mississippi Department of Corrections issues Thursday, February 13, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

In 2020, Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed two criminal justice reform bills which would have provided parole eligibility for thousands of people in prison and helped them reenter society through workforce training programs.

The governor said last year’s measures — House Bill 658 and Senate Bill 2123 — were “well-intentioned” but “went too far.”

Between overcrowding, violence, an ongoing Department of Justice investigation and the coronavirus pandemic, Mississippi’s prison crisis still persists. If the Legislature doesn’t take action soon, the state is facing potential federal intervention. In Alabama, a similar prison crisis has resulted in taxpayers facing a $1 billion bill to meet federal mandates to fix the system.

In Mississippi, the Legislature is trying this year to pass new criminal justice reform measures to expand parole eligibility and reentry programs for people in the state’s prisons.

Rep. Kevin Horan, D-Grenada, authored two criminal justice reform bills currently moving through the Legislature — House Bill 525, the omnibus criminal justice reform bill, and House Bill 465, the Compassionate Parole Eligibility Act.

Rep. M. Kevin Horan speaks during a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Jackson Friday, August 24, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Horan, who is chair of the House Corrections Committee, said HB 525 primarily focuses on “reentry and programming of inmates prior to release and uniformity in parole,” particularly aiming to streamline the differences in parole eligibility for those who were convicted and sentenced before and after 1995.

“Prior to 1994, nearly everyone sentenced to prison in Mississippi was eligible for parole after serving 25% of their sentence or 10 years. In 1995, Mississippi joined the ranks of states who moved to abolish parole and mandate that everyone serve at least 85% of their sentence in prison,” according to a January 2021 report by FWD.us, a bipartisan criminal justice reform advocacy organization.

Horan said his legislation hopes to address this.

“I’m looking to make those individuals that have (parole) eligibility prior to ‘95 for those individuals after ‘95 to have the same or similar parole eligibility. That would be the goal, just like Senate Bill 2123 last year,” Horan said. “It treated everybody the same, and I think that’s a fair way to approach parole eligibility.”

Horan said his parole reform bill would incentivize good behavior for people in prison, considering they may have the opportunity for parole, but it would only impact people in prison convicted of certain offenses.

“(HB 525), like last year, won’t have any additional provisions allowing sex offenders or those convicted of capital murder to gain any type of consideration (for parole),” Horan said.

Horan’s other bill, HB 465 — the Compassionate Parole Eligibility Act — would allow people in prison who were not convicted of a sex offense, capital murder or sentenced to death to be eligible for parole if they have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and have a life expectancy of a year or less or are completely disabled. 

With over 17,000 people incarcerated in Mississippi, the state has the second-highest incarceration rate of all 50 states in the U.S., which is “due in large part to Mississippi’s parole laws, which are among the most restrictive in the nation,” according to the FWD.us report on parole in Mississippi.

The report also said the state’s prison population “more than doubled between 1994, the final year in which most people in prison were eligible for parole, and 2008.”

Today, more than 12,000 incarcerated Mississippians, or about two-thirds of the prison population, are not eligible for parole, according to FWD.us. 

Four of the 109 people who died in MDOC facilities last year — O.D. Washington, 74, Melvin Thomas, 66, Owen Nelson, 57, and Bobby Vance, 54 — would have been eligible for parole if the governor had not vetoed last year’s criminal justice reform measures, according to FWD.us.

Alesha Judkins, Mississippi state director of criminal justice reform at FWD.us Credit: FWD.us

“It’s heartbreaking because it didn’t have to be that way,” said Alesha Judkins, FWD.us Mississippi director for criminal justice reform. “I think the lesson learned is that what we’re doing right now isn’t working, and we can’t continue to do it at the expense of losing people’s lives.”

Tuesday is a deadline day at the Legislature and HB 465 — the Compassionate Parole Eligibility Act — hasn’t been taken up yet, meaning it will likely die in committee. But Horan told Mississippi Today some of what the bill entails would likely be folded into other criminal justice reform bills later in the session. 

“I haven’t decided that I will bring that out of committee yet because those code sections are in the omnibus bill, but as far as the compassionate care provisions, we’ve worked on language with the Senate,” Horan said. “Those policy positions regarding compassionate care release eligibility will be in the bill, but it may not be in the same form as (it is in HB 465).”

Judkins said expanding parole eligibility could restore a sense of hope for people in prison and their families, alluding to a possibility of decreased violence in Mississippi’s prisons.

“I think that’s a huge part because I feel like a lot of violence is from desperation and lack of hope,” Judkins said. “I think people living in those situations feel hopeless, and there’s this huge sense of despair, like what’s the point? Why should I care? And I think we’re able to expand parole to people, you will see a lot of change.”

Horan said the omnibus criminal justice reform bill focuses on reentry and workforce training for people in prison who may be eligible for parole, increasing the potential of a decreased prison population and more partnerships with Mississippi’s business community and people in prison.

“I think we need to give the opportunity to those individuals that can earn some type of (parole) eligibility that don’t have it now, or to give them eligibility where they can prove the case that they’re worthy of it,” Horan told Mississippi Today said. “Percentage-wise, we have an extremely large number of (parole) ineligible inmates disproportionate to our population in MDOC…compared to other states.”

Brittany Brown is Mississippi Today’s inaugural Emerging Reporters Fellow, covering the state’s justice system with an eye for racial justice and inequity.