JACKSON, Miss.–Controlling the costs of keeping people accountable without compromising public safety is the goal of the new corrections reform bill (HB585) signed into law Monday by Gov. Phil Bryant. He signed the bill surrounded by legislators, corrections personnel, veterans, and members of a bi-partisan task force, whose research was the driving force behind the bill coming together.
“Mississippi has positioned itself to no longer be second in the United States of America in incarceration,” said Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps, who oversees the state’s prison system.
The reforms included in the bill, according to Gov. Bryant, will avert projected prison growth over the next ten years and are expected to save the state at least $266 million in prison costs over the coming decade.
The task force helped form the new law after about a year of research. The group of 21 people all involved in the criminal justice system and chaired by Epps, came up with 19 recommendations. Those recommendations became the core of the law.
“House Bill 585 is a landmark for criminal justice reform in the State of Mississippi,” said Epps. “It is the first of this type of legislation I’ve seen in my 33 years with the Dept. of Corrections.”
“It allows us to get control of long-term spending in the Dept. of Corrections, while ensuring public safety is protected,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.
How the bill does that: It makes it more possible for judges to sentence non-violent people to house arrest, rather than pay to house them.
News Mississippi asked Gov. Bryant if they state is prepared financially to take on a new, beefed up level of ankle monitoring.
“That is so much less expensive than putting them into Corrections, where you have to take them to the doctor, where you have to put two corrections officers with them to transport them. For non-violent offenders the opportunity to put an ankle bracelet on them, to send ’em back to work. make ’em pay a fine, drug test ’em, that is a more effective way.”
The law, which takes effect July 1, also makes it mandatory for violent offenders to serve more of their sentences before they can get out on early release. It also makes drug courts and veteran courts available to judges as alternatives for people who are on drugs but are not selling them, and for veterans returning from combat who have gone wayward in a non-violent way.
Sen. Brice Wiggins (R-Pascagoula) was part of the process. He served as a prosecutor for ten years.
“I see this as a family values bill,” he said. “Not only are victims impacted by crimes, but also the families of the defendants.”
Rep. Andy Gipson (R) said the law is modeled after programs in other states where crime has gone down as a result of the criminal justice reforms.
“This bill also accomplishes something else that is long overdue. That is the restoration of certainty to the sentencing process. For the first time, under House Bill 585, law breakers and law enforcement alike will know that there are certain consequences to come for breaking the law, true minimums that will be in place.”
The law will likely evolve as how it works becomes apparent over the next few years, which was acknowledged by Bryant.
“We will be monitoring,” he said.
In addition to Commissioner Epps, Task Force members were Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Sampson Jackson, Senate Judiciary B Committee Chairman Hob Bryan, House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, House Corrections Committee Chairman Tommy Taylor, Senator Willie Simmons, Court of Appeals Judge Larry Roberts, Circuit Court Judge Vernon Cotten, Hinds County Justice Court Judge Jimmy Morton, Madison County Court Judge Steve S. Ratcliff III, Deputy Attorney General Onetta S. Whitley, Hinds County Assistant District Attorney Jamie McBride, Madison County Public Defender Greg Weber, Director of the Capital Defense Counsel Andre’ de Gruy, Yalobusha County Sheriff Lance Humphreys, Warren County Supervisor Bill Lauderdale, District Attorney Ronnie Harper, District Attorney Richard Smith, Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center Managing Attorney Jody Owens II, Clinton attorney Vicki Gilliam and former Police Chief Ken Winter of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police.
The Task Force received intensive technical assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project as part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative of the US Department of Justice. Pew and its partners have assisted two dozen states, including Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina, with similar data-driven analyses and consensus-based policy recommendations, said a news release from Bryant’s camp.