Mississippi’s criminal justice agenda could include re-entry, expungements

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JACKSON, Miss. — Lawmakers are promising changes to Mississippi’s criminal justice system that could include support for prisoners to re-enter society, ways to wipe out records of past convictions and sentencing relief for prisoners convicted before an earlier round of changes.

Both Gov. Phil Bryant and House Speaker Philip Gunn have said changes to Mississippi’s criminal justice system will be among their top priorities for the legislative session beginning Tuesday. However, top lawmakers remain vague about what they hope to accomplish. House Corrections Committee Chairman Bill Kinkade, a Byhalia Republican, says he plans a joint committee meeting with the Senate Corrections Committee in late January, and will be ready to talk more about details then.

“The whole idea here is to improve public safety and be better stewards of taxpayer dollars — you know, less inmates,” Kinkade said Monday.

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.

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. The issue has also come into the spotlight because of a bill recently passed by Congress that somewhat lessens federal sentences.

Last year, lawmakers passed a bill that would have repealed a state law that automatically voids the driver’s license of anyone convicted of a drug offense, with the aim of making sure such people can continue to drive to work legally. It also would have required the state’s drug courts to make medication-assisted treatment available and to allow people leaving prisons to start paying $55-a-month supervision fees to the Mississippi Department of Corrections after 90 days, instead of after 30 days. However, Bryant vetoed the bill because it also would have required judges to exempt indigent people from paying the supervision fees at all. The prison system opposed that provision, saying it couldn’t afford to run its probation and parole operations without the money.

The provisions from that bill, minus the fee exemption, are likely to return this year.

Kinkade said he was investigating other ways of improving prisoners’ ability to re-enter society. Among proposals are supportive housing, job training and hiring incentives for employers.

“The most effective means of reducing crime in Mississippi is to have an effective re-entry program to reduce criminal recidivism,” said Steve Pickett, chairman of the state Parole Board.

Lawmakers also have shown interest in recent years in simplifying the procedure for having theft and drug charges removed from criminal records. Right now, getting convictions expunged generally requires hiring a lawyer, an expensive, time-consuming option.

There’s also wide support for expanding Mississippi’s fledgling system of mental health courts. Today, dozens of people accused of crimes but believed to be mentally ill are jailed, awaiting evaluation and possible treatment by psychiatrists. It’s legally messy for authorities to drop charges and instead seek to have someone committed in a civil proceeding, but previous proposals to clarify that process have failed.

Lawmakers could also consider:

— Allowing judges to reconsider long sentences handed down in the past, especially before Mississippi’s 2014 changes.

— Letting more people out of jail while awaiting trial without paying bail

— Setting up a statewide public defender system to improve legal representation for people accused of crimes.

— Reducing sentences for first- and second-offense drug crimes.

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