Legislature Working to Keep Mississippi Safe and Provide Second Chances

Both the House and Senate have demonstrated desire to pass meaningful public safety legislation that provides second chances for rehabilitated offenders. So far this session, bills have cleared individual chambers to reform parole eligibility, reform habitual sentencing laws to ensure punishment fits the crime, and provide a path for record expungement for released offenders who successfully re-integrate into society.

“At Empower Mississippi, we are committed to a criminal justice system that protects the public, while providing second chances to those who have earned it,” said Empower Director of Justice and Work Steven Randle. “During the first month of the session, we are grateful that the legislature has continued on the path to reform. As the session rolls on, we will double down on working with members in both chambers and with Gov. Reeves to improve our system, save taxpayers money, and keep families safe.”

Senate Bill 2795: Sponsored by Sen. Juan Barnett, the “Mississippi Earned Parole Eligibility Act” seeks to modernize Mississippi’s parole system based on best evidence from across the country. The legislation would build on well-accepted standards from Mississippi’s landmark criminal justice reforms in 2014 (HB 585), providing Mississippi’s governor-appointed parole board with new tools to ensure that the most viable threats remain behind bars while creating new incentives for good behavior and a path to safely reduce Mississippi’s second highest in the nation rate of incarceration. While Empower believes SB 2795 can be refined further, we applaud Sen. Barnett for taking solid steps toward addressing Mississippi’s prison crisis and allowing limited resources to be applied to ensure public safety. SB 2795 passed the Senate. Similar legislation is advancing in the House under the leadership of Rep. Kevin Horan.

House Bill 796: Sponsored by Rep. Nick Bain, this piece of legislation seeks to address Mississippi’s “three-strike” laws. Designed in the mid-1990s on the back of the Clinton-crime bill, habitual laws impose enhanced sentencing on individuals with multiple brushes with the law. As currently designed, they can yield grossly disproportionate sentences, including life without the possibility of parole for relatively minor third offenses. As an example, over 80 inmates in Mississippi prisons are serving life sentences under our habitual laws for non-violent third offenses. Often inmates sentenced under these laws went vast periods of time between offenses before their third offense. HB 796 seeks to tweak our habitual laws to prevent consideration of offenses more than 15 years old in determining the application of habitual laws and to ensure that a life sentence is only available if the third offense is a crime of violence. This passed the House. A similar bill had been filed by Sen. Daniel Sparks, but failed to clear committee.  

Read more: The story of James Vardaman

House Bill 122: Sponsored by Rep. Jansen Owen, this piece of legislation seeks to reform Mississippi’s non-disclosure laws to reward good behavior once a person has served their time and successfully re-integrated into society. This would allow individuals who have successfully re-integrated into society to apply for up to three expungements — one after five years with no additional trouble, a second after 10 years with no additional trouble, and a third after 15 years with no additional trouble. Decisions to grant the right of non-disclosure are at the discretion of the judge, and current law establishing ineligibility for certain crimes remains. This passed the House.