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Mississippi governor vetoes criminal justice bills

July 9, 2020 GMT
Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves delivers a televised address prior to signing a bill retiring the last state flag in the United States with the Confederate battle emblem, at the Governor's Mansion in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool)
Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves delivers a televised address prior to signing a bill retiring the last state flag in the United States with the Confederate battle emblem, at the Governor's Mansion in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves has vetoed two criminal justice bills, one of which would have given thousands of offenders the chance at parole from the crowded prison system.

“I know that I’ll get attacked and protested for this,” Republican Reeves wrote in a statement about the veto on his social media accounts late Wednesday. “In a time when efforts to ‘defund police’ and ‘dismantle the criminal justice system’ are part of the discussion, they’ll probably try to paint any effort at law and order as the radical position.”

The Mississippi Correctional Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2020, or Senate Bill 2123, would have let people convicted of nonviolent offenses become eligible for parole after serving 25% of their sentence. People convicted of violent offenses would have been eligible for parole after completing 50% of their sentence, or after 20 years, whichever comes first — for those sentenced between July 1, 1995, and June 30, 2014.

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The bill would have allowed people convicted of most violent offenses after July 1, 2014, to become eligible for parole after serving 50% of their sentence served or after 30 years, whichever is less. The bill also allowed geriatric parole hearings for those 65 and older who have served 10 years of their sentences.

The bill did not guarantee any inmate release, only the opportunity to apply to the parole board. Habitual offenders, sex offenders and inmates sentenced for capital murder would not have been eligible for parole.

Reeves said he felt like the legislation was “well-intentioned” but went “too far.” He said he received calls from law enforcement officers and prosecutors who told him it would create a “risk” by releasing people with violent criminal histories. Those were concerns echoed by lawmakers who spoke against the bill, which passed with 25-17 in the Senate and 78-29 in the House.

“If they want to try again, I’ll listen,” Reeves wrote. “This was not the right approach.”

Alesha Judkins is state director of FWD.us Mississippi, an organization that presses for reform in the state’s prison system. She said she was surprised by the veto, given the problems plaguing the Mississippi Department of Corrections. At least 50 people have died in MDOC custody since December. The Department of Justice has launched an investigation into conditions in four state prisons and MDOC is facing multiple lawsuits.

“This important bill was a widely-supported, urgently-needed and moderate step forward in addressing Mississippi’s imprisonment crisis,” Judkins said in a statement Thursday. “The governor’s veto represents a critical missed opportunity to save lives. ”

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Americans for Prosperity-Mississippi director Steven Utroska said he also was disappointed. He said the legislation would have had a “positive impact” on Mississippi’s “incredibly high incarceration rate and deplorable conditions of confinement within its state prisons.”

The bill gained bipartisan momentum during the legislative session from lawmakers who hoped it would encourage participation in educational and rehabilitative programming and prison — and save the state some money. According to the Department of Corrections, 14,044 of the approximately 19,000 inmates in Mississippi prisons are serving at least one sentence that is not eligible for parole. Housing an inmate costs $14,500 a year in Mississippi, according to a 2019 report by FWD.us.

On Wednesday night, Reeves also vetoed House Bill 658, which would have made it easier for some offenders to expunge their criminal record. The bill would have allowed first-time offenders to remove misdemeanors from their record after a trial or a plea. It would also have allowed felony offenders to expunge their records five years after completing all the terms of their sentences. However, a person would not be able to wipe certain crimes of violence, arson, or failure to register as a sex offender convictions from their record.

Reeves said current Mississippi law says a person can erase one felony from the record after a few years. He said that’s enough.

“One of these bills says that criminals can get three separate felony incidents erased from their record,” Reeves said. “We can’t have career criminals walking around with no records. The law enforcement community that I spoke with agreed.”

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Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.