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Bill expanding parole eligibility in Mississippi awaits governor’s signature

Photo courtesy of Mississippi Department of Corrections

Photo courtesy of Mississippi Department of Corrections

Last year, Governor Tate Reeves vetoed a criminal justice reform measure that he said went too far in expanding parole eligibility. After some tweaks and discussions with district attorneys and other members of the law enforcement community, the legislature has passed the “Mississippi Earned Parole Eligibility Act.’ 

By increasing eligibility to non-violent offenders that have served 25% of their sentence and some violent offenders at 50%, the intent of the bill, authored by Senator Juan Barnett, is to reduce the state’s incarceration rate—which is the 2nd highest in the nation—in a way that incentivizes good behavior. 

“We do need to look at their behavior once they enter corrections. Are they taking advantage of programming? And we’ve been failing the system on programming for the last several years, but I’m excited about what [Department of Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain] is doing…It’s not a release bill. It is a motivational tool to people that are incarcerated. And remember what the last word in ‘Department of’ is ‘Corrections,’” Senator Daniel Sparks, Vice-Chair of the Senate Corrections Committee, said. 

Prisoners convicted on charges such as murder, human trafficking, sex crimes and drug trafficking will not be eligible for parole under this act. Armed robbery offenders will be among those that become eligible for parole. 

Sparks and others, including Steven Randle, Director of Justice and Work for Empower Mississippi, have explained that this bill does not automatically release any prisoners, but simply allows the parole board to hear more cases. 

“It’s just trying to get more people in front of the parole board so that they can have that conversation to see if they are even ready and have accepted to be able to get back into society,” Randle said. “So, it’s definitely not the arbitrary ‘we’re just going to let everybody out.’”

The parole board is made up of five members appointed by the governor. While some nonviolent offenders can simply meet the terms of their parole, any violent offender that’s up for parole must go through a parole hearing. 

Empower Mississippi states that Mississippi’s high incarceration rate is “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” and that this reform could go a long way in addressing the issue. 

Following the adoption of the conference report at the capitol, the bill now awaits the governor’s signature. 

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