JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A local advocacy group will again be pushing for a bill that would make certain violent criminals eligible for parole after serving at least 50 percent of their sentences, as part of its efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system.
Empower Mississippi, a local advocacy group that says its mission is to break barriers, is advocating for several pieces of legislation this year that it says would help remove barriers for convicted felons seeking to reenter society, including a measure that would open up the option of parole to more offenders.
“Last year, we had an incredible push with S.B. 2123, which passed both chambers, but progress was halted by a veto,” said Steven Randle, director of justice and work for the group. “We think the legislation that’s being brought forth this session would address some of the issues in the governor’s veto message ... and get over the finish line.
“That’s what we’re excited about.”
Empower’s 2021 legislative priorities include changing the state’s parole laws, amending its habitual offender laws, which require mandatory maximum sentences and life sentences for individuals convicted of a third felony crime, and allowing some formerly convicted felons to have their records expunged.
So far this year, several criminal justice reform bills have been introduced, including at least two to amend the state’s parole regulations.
District 32 Sen. Sampson Jackson has submitted S.B. 2377, which would allow offenders who meet certain criteria to request a judicial recommendation of parole if they’ve served 10 years of a sentence that is 40 years or more. That measure has been referred to the Senate’s Corrections and Judiciary B committees.
Meanwhile, District 12 Sen. Derrick Simmons has introduced a bill to revise which offenses would not be eligible for parole.
Empower is also pushing for provisions to allow those convicted of nonviolent crimes to have their records expunged if they meet certain criteria.
Randle said Mississippi’s habitual offender laws were put in place in the 1990s, in an effort to help quell rising crime, and were similar to rules put in at the federal level and in other states.
The rules often are referred to as “three strikes” laws, because if someone is convicted of a third crime, they’re given either an automatic life sentence or the maximum sentence allowed for the crime.
Under the law, a person would receive the maximum sentence for the third felony conviction if the prior two felonies were nonviolent. If at least one of the previous convictions was for a violent crime, the person would get an automatic life sentence, even if the third strike was for a nonviolent crime, Randle explained.
Additionally, the law does not include a statute of limitations, meaning that a crime someone committed 20, 30, or 40 years ago could still count toward their three strikes.
Currently, 78 people are serving life sentences related to the three strikes law.
“We want to try to prevent old charges from being counted,” he said. “Doing wrong is something that should be punishable, but we want the punishment to fit that crime and that crime alone.”
Randle added that the rules have led to a significant increase in incarcerated people in the state, and has given Mississippi the dubious honor of having one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation.
S.B. 2131 could help address the state’s incarceration problem in the long-term. That bill, which also was introduced by Simmons, would mandate that no felony be included among a person’s strikes if 10 years have elapsed between the completion of the sentence for that crime and the commission of the new one. That measure has been referred to the Corrections and Judiciary B committees.
In addition to not having decades-old crimes count toward sentencings, Empower Mississippi is working with lawmakers on legislation that would allow formerly convicted felons to have their records expunged.
Reforms being proposed by Empower would allow those convicted of nonviolent offenses to be eligible to have their crimes stricken from their record after the completion of all terms of their sentences and five years after leaving a correctional facility.
As for parole reform, Randle said Empower has reached out to Gov. Tate Reeve’s office to discuss concerns with last year’s legislation.
Under 2123, all individuals sentenced for certain violent crimes between June 30, 1995, and July 1, 2014, would be eligible for parole after serving 50 percent or 20 years of their sentences imposed by a trial court. For individuals convicted after July 1, 2014, would eligible for parole after completing 50 percent of their sentences or 30 years behind bars.
Right now, those individuals are not eligible for parole after completing 75 percent of their sentences, Randle said.
Violent offenses would be those included under Mississippi Code Section 97-3-2 and include driving under the influence, murder and attempted murder, aggravated assault, manslaughter, the killing of an unborn child, kidnapping, poisoning, robbery, rape and others.
Those sentenced to life without parole would not be eligible, nor would habitual offenders and certain sex offenders.
Meanwhile, all non-violent offenders convicted after June 30, 1995, would be eligible for parole after completing 25 percent of their sentences.
Reeves vetoed the measure, arguing that the bill “had not been fully considered by all stakeholders and as drafted would threaten public safety.”
Among concerns, the governor said SB 2123 removes, “reasonable limitations geriatric parole and makes habitual offenders, violent criminals and drug traffickers immediately eligible for parole when they reach the age 65 and have served just 10 years of their sentence.
“Thus, under Senate Bill 2123, a 55-year-old person convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 40 years would eligible for parole after serving just 10 years,” he wrote.
Randle said Empower said the governor’s concerns were valid and believes that legislation being introduced this year will address them.
Among steps, Empower is working with lawmakers on legislation that would include rehabilitation options for prisoners to help cut down on recidivism once they get out. He said other provisions also could be included in the legislation.
“We’ve been in conversation with the governor and his office,” Randle said. “The conversation right now is positive and we’re excited about it.”