Criminal justice reform measures moving forward

By Steve Wilson
February 7, 2019

President Donald Trump made the recently-passed criminal justice reform one of the big components of his State of the Union speech Tuesday night.

Two of his guests in the Capitol gallery for the speech were Alice Johnson and Matthew Charles, both former offenders helped by his signature of the FIRST Step Act into law in December, one of the biggest bipartisan criminal justice reform initiatives passed in decades.

“This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African American community,” Trump said in his speech. “The FIRST STEP Act gives non-violent offenders the chance to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Now states across the country are following our lead.

“America is a nation that believes in redemption.”

Thanks to Gov. Phil Bryant and the legislature, Mississippi has been a national leader on the issue since the passage of House Bill 585 in 2014 and has a chance to continue this movement in the right direction with legislation that’s still active in the state legislature.

Senate Bill 2791 and HB 1352 were both approved by the respective judicial committees in their originating chambers before Tuesday’s deadline.

SB 2791 would mandate evidence-based solutions to reduce incarceration and eliminate obstacles for ex-offenders to find work. It would also give courts the ability to reduce post-incarceration supervision, which can last up to five years under present law. This would allow probation officers to give more supervision to violent and habitual offenders.

The Reentry and Employability Act is sponsored by state Sen. Juan Barnett (D-Heidelberg).

State Rep. Jason White (R-West) sponsored the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which would clear obstacles for the formerly incarcerated to find work such as preventing occupational licensing boards from barring licenses to ex-offenders who’ve served their debt to society.

These “good faith clauses” have resulted in two former ex-offenders being denied licenses.

HB 1352 would also end the requirement that an offender’s driver’s license be suspended for a controlled substance violation that wasn’t related to the operation of a motor vehicle.

It would also change the name of drug courts to “intervention” courts and create a fund to help finance programs that would reduce recidivism.

Since the passage of HB 585 in 2014, Mississippi’s prison population has declined from 21,992 inmates on January 1, 2014 to 19,366 on January 1, 2019. That’s a decrease of 11.94 percent.

After bottoming out in 2016, the number of state prisoners has been a slow uptick (3.23 percent) and further reforms could help. Those numbers are still lower (20,988 inmates) than the Pew Trusts predicted for the state’s prison population.

Last year, Gov. 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.

These reforms have reduced the number of non-violent offenders in state prisons and given judges more leeway in sentencing when it comes to mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders.

Also, the state has outlawed jailing those due to an inability to pay a fine or fee.


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