Mississippi prison reform law concerns

Published: Sep. 13, 2016 at 2:06 PM CDT
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There's a call for changes that involve a major prison reform law in Mississippi. House Bill 585 was passed by the state legislature, and signed into law by the governor two years ago. It was designed to reduce overcrowding in prisons. The state's top organization for prosecuting attorneys is pushing lawmakers to modify some of the changes that were made by the law.

"We're having to re-handle offenders time, and time and time again as they re-offend victims in our community," says Lauderdale County Sheriff Billy Sollie. He says this problem has increased since House Bill 585 took effect.

According to the sheriff, during a recent random week he surveyed bookings for inmates. During that seven day period 24 people charged with felony offenses were booked into the jail in Lauderdale County, and of those 19 had previously been locked up behind bars there.

Designed to reduce overcrowding in jails, and to cut costs, House Bill 585 gives courts more flexibility to hand down alternative punishments for non-violent offenders such as: reduced sentences and rehabilitation programs.

"Last year were were second in the state for using the Habitual Offender Law," says District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell. Serving four counties in East Mississippi, he says the use of the "three strikes you're out" policy is what his office has used to help keep repeat offenders behind bars. Mitchell, along with other members of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association agree that in some cases House Bill 585 is too far reaching.

"Well, what I want is that if one of my judges gives a ten year sentence," says Mitchell, "and they suspend a part of that sentence, or all of that sentence, if the person can't follow his probation, the judge ought to be able to enforce his sentence."

Supporters of House Bill 585 say the measure is projected to save the state of Mississippi about $266-million in prison costs over a ten year period.

According to Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher, House Bill 585 has led to a decrease in the number of inmates within the state. However, he says it has also almost tripled the workload for probation and parole officers in Mississippi. House Bill 585 is modeled after criminal justice changes that were previously made in Texas, Georgia and other states.

Mississippi's law requires non-violent offenders to serve a minimum of 25% of their sentence, and violent offenders to serve at least 50% of their sentence.