JACKSON — A new Mississippi law will make more inmates eligible for the possibility of parole in a state with one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves on Thursday signed Senate Bill 2795, and it will become law July 1.
“Criminal Justice reform. It means a lot of different things to different people,” Reeves wrote on Twitter after signing the bill. “A measured approach to 2nd chances is good — a knee-jerk reaction can harm public safety. My #1 focus in these troubling times will always be to protect MS communities.”
On March 30, the Senate voted 35-13 and the House voted 91-27 to pass the final version of the bill. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans, and some conservative groups pushed the governor to sign the bill.
Reeves vetoed two criminal justice bills last year, including one that would have expanded parole eligibility. He said prosecutors and law enforcement officials told him the 2020 parole bill would create a risk of release for violent inmates.
A key difference is that this year’s bill will not allow parole consideration for anyone convicted of murder, said Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Juan Barnett, a Democrat from Heidelberg.
Reeves tweeted Thursday: “This bill expands parole eligibility for some — but it does not guarantee it! And not all are eligible — we were able to ensure 1st and 2nd degree murderers can’t get it.”
Mississippi has some people serving long sentences for nonviolent offenses, and its prison system came under Justice Department investigation last year after outbreaks of violence among inmates.
Current state law says inmates convicted of some crimes after June 30, 1995, are ineligible for parole. The House Corrections Committee chairman, Republican Kevin Horan of Grenada, said the bill will allow the possibility of parole for people convicted of armed robbery.
Current Mississippi law also says a person convicted of a nonviolent crime must serve at least 25 percent of the sentence before becoming eligible for a parole hearing. Senate Bill 2795 says that for nonviolent crimes committed after June 30, 1995, an inmate will have to serve at least 25 percent or 10 years before the possibility of a parole hearing. A person with a 60-year sentence could get a parole hearing after 15 years under current law and after 10 years under the new law.
People convicted of some crimes will remain ineligible for parole, under the new law. Those crimes include murder, human trafficking, drug trafficking and many sex crimes.
Among those pushing Reeves to sign the bill into law was Empower Mississippi, a group that advocates a limited role for government.
“Legislative leadership and stakeholders from across the criminal justice system worked very hard this year to craft meaningful parole reform that puts public safety first while providing opportunity for rehabilitated individuals to earn redemption,” Empower Mississippi President Russ Latino said in a statement Thursday. “… It should be seen as a signal to the Department of Justice that we are prepared to get our own house in order, without costly federal intervention. This is a smart on crime, soft on taxpayer conservative reform.”
Barnett said opening the possibility of parole to some inmates could provide hope. He said inmates would be encouraged to take part in job training or other programs offered by the Department of Corrections. He said good behavior would help during parole hearings. The five members of the state Parole Board are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
FWD.us, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by technology and business executives, also prodded Mississippi officials to expand parole eligibility. The group’s Mississippi director, Alesha Judkins, said in a statement Thursday that the state has an “incarceration crisis.”
“These reforms will help Mississippi begin to address its dangerously high prison population and high imprisonment rate,” Judkins said. “By expanding parole eligibility, the state has joined several other Southern states in passing common-sense criminal justice reform measures that have safely reduced prison populations and decreased crime rates at the same time.”