Don’t call state Sen. Juan Barnett “a bleeding heart liberal” just because he believes state laws should be changed to expand the opportunity for earlier release for many in Mississippi prisons.
Barnett, a 51-year-old Democrat from Heidelberg and chair of the Senate Corrections Committee, knows the despair that can be experienced by victims of crime. After all, Barnett and his family in Jasper County are crime victims — victims of violent crime.
But now Barnett is working in the Mississippi Senate to shorten the sentences for many state inmates.
This could be considered an unusual priority for a legislator who, as a 20-year-old Army soldier deployed to Iraq in the early 1990s in the first Gulf War, received word his father had been shot to death in his hometown of Heidelberg. The death occurred during a confrontation where to this day Barnett said the exact details of what occurred are not known.
What Barnett does know is that the incident, after which a person was sent away to prison for a short period of time, left Barnett feeling both heartbroken and vengeful. Those feelings, he said, lingered for years while he went away to college at Livingston University in Alabama.
He later worked in Indonesia for a period in the telecommunications industry before returning to his hometown and to his mother’s house without much direction on what the next phase of his life would entail.
“I was sitting around at my mother’s house one day, not feeling good, by myself, talking to myself about what had happened, when I realized that I could not move forward until I was able to forgive like the Bible teaches,” he recalled. “I truly believe being able to do that put me in the position I am in today, working on the things I am working on.”
Barnett, who represents all of rural Jasper County and portions of Jones and Forrest, is one of the Senate leaders on bipartisan efforts to expand the opportunities for early release from prison. A wide range of advocacy groups, such as the American Conservative Union and the American Civil Liberties Union, support the concept of expanded early release opportunities.
David Safavian, general counsel for the American Conservative Union, recently wrote to legislative leaders: “If long sentences and high incarceration rates were correlated with greater public safety, Mississippi, which has the third highest incarceration rate in the country, should be one of the safest jurisdictions in the United States. Unfortunately, that is not the case” based on FBI crime data.
The efforts to change laws surrounding parole and early release and other laws related to the state’s prison system continue to be considered during the final days of the 2021 legislative session. Last session, Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed those efforts after many in law enforcement expressed opposition. Barnett expressed optimism that a compromise could be reached this year.
Barnett said he and other advocates for criminal justice reform are not talking about people not being punished — especially for violent crimes. But he said there are instances in Mississippi where people are being locked up for much longer periods of time than they are in other states for the same crime, resulting in state revenue that could go to education and other services being diverted to the prison system.
In addition, Barnett said he believes it will make a difference for some inmates if they know there are politicians who are fighting for them to have a second chance.
“Being able to help some people change their lives is a lot better than helping no one,” Barnett said.
Barnett said he understands the hurt of crime victims, but also understands the circumstances that can lead to criminal activity. He referenced going into a convenience store and seeing a group of young boys “with $1.50 to buy a bag of potato chips. That won’t go far. One of those boys might, because of circumstances, commit a crime one day.”
He said he is not making excuses, but believes many people turn to crime because of mistakes and circumstances in their lives. “Most people don’t choose to commit a crime when they have other choices,” he said.
Before being elected to the Senate in 2015, Barnett served four terms as mayor of Heidelberg, a predominantly African American town of less than 1,000 between Meridian and Laurel.
He said he recently ran into the mother of the man convicted of shooting his father in 1991 at a cancer survivors meeting.
“We stopped and talked,” he said. Barnett said what he tries to practice in his everyday life is a willingness to forgive and to move on. That, he believes, is also good public policy, in some instances, for the state of Mississippi.
“At some point we need to stop building fences and build bridges,” he said.