Amidst a national backdrop of protests, civil unrest, and renewed calls to change the state flag in Mississippi, the Republican dominated state legislature in the Magnolia State is quietly pushing a number of new criminal justice reform measures.
If these bills become law, it will continue and expand upon a five-year trend in the right direction for a state with a prison system that cost taxpayers more than $340 million a year to house more inmates per capita than all but two other states.
HB 658: This will update the state’s expungement law to allow individuals with multiple convictions for drug offenses to apply for expungement. Right now, only one offense is eligible for expungement.
HB 838: This will allow individuals leaving state prisons to use MDOC documents as qualifying papers to obtain a driver’s license. For ex-offenders to land gainful employment, they generally need a driver’s license. Something that has been a hinderance. This will make that process easier by allowing MDOC documents in lieu of a birth certificate or social security card.
HB 1024: This will make various reforms to Mississippi’s “three strikes” habitual offender law for nonviolent drug offenses. It prevents offenses from more than 15 years ago counting toward the enhancement and prevents nonviolent offenses from triggering a life sentence.
HB 1476: This will make inmates with certain medical conditions eligible for parole.
SB 2112: This is the ‘Ban The Box Act,’ which will prohibit public employers from using criminal history as a preliminary bar for employment.
SB 2123: This will allow the Parole Board to consider individuals after they have served 25 percent of their sentence for a nonviolent offense and 50 percent for a violent offense.
SB 2759: This will update the state’s Fresh Start Act, initially adopted last year, that prevents occupational licensing boards from denying an individual an occupational license because of a past offense unless the conviction is directly linked to the occupation.
After Wednesday’s legislative deadline, all of these bills are still alive and will likely be headed to conference where the House and Senate will hash out differences before agreeing to a final bill that lawmakers will again have to support.
In 2014, Mississippi policymakers began to study criminal justice issues and explore policy options that would help decrease both crime and incarceration while providing better outcomes for people who encounter the criminal justice system.
The passage of House Bill 585 in 2014 began this process by establishing certainty in sentencing and prioritizing prison bed space for people facing serious offenses. This helped reduce the state’s prison population by 10 percent and generated nearly $40 million in taxpayer savings. Prior to this year, policymakers have also passed several pieces of legislation since then aimed at removing barriers to re-entry for those leaving the prison system.
While the state has been lauded for these reforms, the prison population remains stubbornly high. The latest numbers show that the state is falling further behind economically, as our workforce participation is growing at a slower pace than most other states. While other states are moving to reform their criminal justice systems to reduce reliance on prison, Mississippi cannot rest on its laurels.
But by advancing innovative policy solutions, Mississippi can begin to close the gap by reducing our state’s prison population, ending the cycle of crime, and better spending taxpayer dollars to protect public safety.