Sentencing reforms get powerful backer in conservative state

Gov. Phil Bryant says he'll support efforts to reduce the number of Mississippians in prison in the 2019 legislative session during a discussion on criminal justice reform, at the Mississippi Summit on Criminal Justice Reform in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. The meeting was put on by a coalition of groups that favor changes to reduce harshness in the criminal justice system. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. — A conservative Republican governor and former sheriff’s deputy who once sought longer prison sentences for criminals says he’s changed his mind and now wants to make Mississippi’s justice system less punitive.

Gov. Phil Bryant’s statements came Tuesday at a meeting sponsored by groups including top Republican backers to build support among lawmakers and others for such changes.

The move comes as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday that he will accede to President Donald Trump’s push to reduce some federal sentences. Bryant is an outspoken Trump supporter.

The governor, who once served as a sheriff’s deputy in Hinds County, said that as a state House member, he pushed for a law requiring inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences in state prison. But he said that he later reconsidered.

“I began to realize the cost, as lieutenant governor then, of what was happening in the state of Mississippi,” Bryant said. “The 85 percent rule had done its job and we were filling prisons in Mississippi and having to build more.”

Across the nation, at least 34 states have taken action since 2001 to change or reduce laws requiring mandatory minimum sentences according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums. In some states, prison populations have been falling for years. Mississippi was late to the movement and historically imprisoned people at the second-highest rate in the nation, behind Louisiana.

Mississippi passed a bill in 2014 meant to cut prison sentences. The state’s prison population declined for a time, but the number of state prisoners is rising again.

Louisiana moved to cut prison population, probation and parole caseloads in 2017, seeing a significant drop in population in just a year. Both Louisiana and Mississippi now imprison fewer people per capita than Oklahoma.

Some conservative groups have been seeking less punitive sentences for years, arguing that prison systems cost too much money and that America’s tough-on-crime culture can create laws that infringe on people’s rights. Among the sponsors of Tuesday’s conference were Americans for Prosperity, the political arm of the conservative Koch brothers’ network and the American Conservative Union.

“Today’s public officials have the benefit of looking back over this failed experiment — lock ’em up and throw away the key — and can see it hasn’t made people’s lives better,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Proposed changes for Mississippi have yet to be specified, but could include allowing people to wipe out criminal records and letting officials reconsider long sentences handed down in the past. Other possibilities include improving re-entry programs for people in prison, trying to divert people who are mentally ill from the criminal system and cutting sentences for drug crimes.

Lawmakers could be asked to let more people get out of jail while awaiting trial without paying bail and to set up a statewide public defender system to improve legal representation for people accused of crimes.

Van Jones, a liberal commentator and co-founder of criminal justice reform group #Cut50, said the agreement at the federal level could also provide political cover for action.

“Everywhere else the water is now safe for reform because Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump support the same bill,” Jones told the Mississippi meeting.

Some state lawmakers who have long sought changes in Mississippi aren’t as optimistic. In Mississippi, 2019 is an election year for every statewide elected official, state lawmaker, sheriff and district attorney.

“Don’t look for nothing this year,” said Rep. John Hines, a Greenville Democrat who has been active on criminal justice issues. “People are walking on eggshells.”

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