No one could rightly argue that this year’s session of the Mississippi legislature has been an effective one. As the session draws to a close, there has been no meaningful progress on education funding, road/bridge infrastructure or resolving our state’s recurring revenue shortfalls.
Yet that is not to say that the legislative session has been an absolute failure.
On Monday, Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law HB 387, an important step in much-needed criminal justice reform.
The bi-partisan legislation, which drew the praise of such seemingly disparate advocacy groups as the ACLU and the conservative/libertarian Americans for Prosperity, addresses many of the conditions that perpetuate the revolving door nature of our state’s prison system.
Among the main features of the new law are how the state handles fines incurred by those who have been released on parole or probation. No longer will an inmate be ruled to have violated the terms of his/her release simply because that inmate was unable to pay fines related to their prosecution. By addressing that issue, our state will no longer have one standard for the poor and another for those who are more affluent.
The law also creates a task force to study inequities in sentencing and expand the number of inmates eligible for parole.
The law also allows for inmates to meet with their parole/probation officers at their work place, a change that will help prevent ex-offenders from missing work and, possibly, losing their jobs.
We believe that all of these changes represent an enlightened view of criminal justice, one that works in the best interests of the offender but the public at large.
When people are returned to prison for any reason other than committing another criminal offense, we all lose. Ninety-five percent of those who are sent to prison in our state ultimately return to our community. When those people are returned, re-integrated and re-established as productive members of our communities, we all benefit. Not only does the state not bear the costs associated with sending the prisoner back to custody, it also strengthens our community. When a person has paid his debt to society by serving his sentence, we should all be rooting for that person to be made whole and remove any arbitrary obstacles that prevent the person from doing so.
HB 387 does not address every inequity – most felons remain disenfranchised by being denied their right to vote. That is something future legislation can address, hopefully.
In the interim, this new law is a major step toward creating a humane and practical system of criminal justice in our state.
That is something all Mississippians should applaud.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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