Faith Leaders & Conservative Groups Unite in Support of Parole & Habitual Reforms
As the clock ticks on the 2021 legislative session, separate letters from faith leaders and conservative advocacy organizations are calling on the Mississippi legislature to address profound injustices in Mississippi’s criminal justice system through meaningful reforms to our parole system and habitual laws.
“The problems with Mississippi’s criminal justice system are well-documented. While real efforts are being made to fix some of the problems administratively, lawmakers cannot ignore the fact that our outdated and demonstrably ineffective laws play an outsized role in the current prison crisis,” said Empower President Russ Latino. “Inaction is not a strategy. Waiting until the Department of Justice drops its hammer on us is political malpractice. We can protect public safety, be smart on crime, soft on taxpayers, and provide second chances to those who deserve them. The time is now to prove that Mississippi can handle its own problems.”
Two bills filed this session, SB 2795 and HB 525, seek to provide parole eligibility for new categories of offenses in an effort to create incentives for good behavior and rehabilitation in prison and to safely alleviate the pressure of overcrowding in Mississippi’s prisons. HB 796, seeks to ensure that offenses that are distant in time are not used to enhance sentencing and to change Mississippi’s habitual laws to prevent a scenario where a third non-violent offense can draw a life sentence, without the possibility of parole.
Mississippi presently has the second highest rate of incarceration in the nation, a dubious distinction that carries with it exorbitant costs to taxpayers, a history of scandal and violent deaths, and a pending Department of Justice investigations that could result in a federal takeover.
In recent years, the state has been plagued with costly federal lawsuits that have tied legislators hands. Part of the problem is that Mississippi lags behind many conservative states, like Texas, when it comes to its parole program — offering fewer opportunity for early release for prisoners who have proven rehabilitation.
Draconian habitual sentencing laws that are stricter than surrounding states also contribute to a stretched system.
Currently, nearly 90 Mississippi inmates are serving life sentences for a third non-violent offense. Empower has highlighted stories of some of those inmates, including James Vardaman, who was arrested for having seven boxes of Sudafed in his possession and charged with having a precursor to the manufacturing of methamphetamine.