The Mississippi legislature held a policy hearing on criminal justice reform Monday and there was plenty of agreement among corrections officials, prosecutors, law enforcement, judiciary, and interest groups.
These include spending savings from removing non-violent offenders from the state’s inmate population into job training and drug treatment programs, changing the state’s bond system, reducing the amount of controlled, post-incarceration supervision for non-violent offenders and removing “good faith” clauses from occupational licensing regulations.
The goal is ultimately to build on House Bill 585, which was designed to refocus prison space on violent and career criminals, strengthen community supervision and ensure certainty in sentencing.
In 2018, Gov. Phil Bryant signed another round of criminal justice reforms, HB 387, into law that created a “safety valve” option that allows judges discretion in applying mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders and prohibited incarceration due to the inability to pay a fine or fee among other reforms.
“In all of the corrections conferences I’ve attended, I’ve heard how Mississippi has taken steps forward,” said state Rep. Bill Kinkaide (R-Byhalia), who chairs the House Corrections Committee. “We want to embrace common sense reforms to enhance public safety while being good stewards of taxpayer funds.”
All parties agreed that more needs to be done to end the so-called “revolving door” of recidivism, where offenders keep reoffending and reentering the system because they lack the ability to find employment and build a life outside crime.
“We need to help these people (offenders) be successful or else you have to put them back in prison. That’s the bottom line,” said U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett, who was state judge from 1992 to 2004. “Everything that happens to that person in the criminal justice system affects their ability to be successful. Reentry needs to be addressed meaningfully by Mississippi.”
Starrett told the committee that the amount of time ex-cons spend on supervised release needs to be reduced in half. One reason he cited for reducing post-incarceration supervision was that most recidivism occurs in the first year for inmates after release.
According to Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall, taxpayers have saved $45 million since the enactment of the first round of reforms in 2014. According to Hall, the state’s inmate population was reduced by 11 percent after passage.
She told the joint committee that savings from those inmate population reductions need to be invested in job training and drug treatment programs and pay hikes for correctional officers, who are some of the lowest paid nationally.
Those concerns over spending on job training and drug treatment for offenders were amplified by Hal Kittrell, representing the Mississippi Prosecutors Association, Judge Prentiss Harrell of the 15thCircuit Court of Mississippi, and Sheriff Steve Rushing of Lincoln County, the president of the Mississippi Sheriffs’ Association.
Helping ex-cons enter the workforce was also a concern for the experts testifying before the committee. The Mississippi Center for Public Policy’s Vice President for Policy, Jameson Taylor, recommended that the committee eliminate “good faith clauses” in occupational licensing regulations that prevent ex-felons from receiving occupational licenses. He cited two cases where ex-cons were unable to receive occupational licenses because of these clauses.
Jennifer Riley-Collins, the president of the Americans for Civil Liberties in Mississippi, told the committee that the state’s cash bail system needs to be changed since it disproportionately affects poor families.
California was the first state to eliminate its cash bail system.
She said the state’s average inmate population in county jails, where offenders await trial, averaged about 12,000 or so daily. Of those, she said 56 percent of them can’t afford bail.
“Taxpayers are footing the bill for a system that favors the wealthy and it’s not making our communities any safer,” Riley-Collins said. “You have to pay or you stay. If you can’t afford to pay, you have to stay.”