Bill makes some drug dealers parole eligible after 25 percent of time

Published 7:49 pm Friday, February 9, 2007

If you get caught selling a small amount of illegal drugs, and it’s your first time getting busted, be good in jail and you could get out early, under a bill passed Thursday by the Mississippi Senate.

Drug peddlers convicted for the first time of selling less than two ounces of marijuana or two grams of other drugs would be eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentences, under the bill. The proposal now goes to the House for consideration.

House Corrections Committee Chairman Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, said the House passed a similar bill in 2006, but it was held for more work and killed in that chamber when it was debated days later.

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Malone said he’ll talk to House members to see if there’s enough support to pass the bill before he brings it up. He acknowledged that many lawmakers are skittish about being perceived as “soft on crime” during an election year.

“I don’t want to put the House membership through a real controversial blood bath unless I’ve got the support to pass the bill,” Malone said.

Sen. Ralph Doxey, R-Holly Springs, said the proposal is not “soft on crime” because it aims to make room for more serious offenders in the state’s crowded prisons.

“Let’s put the bad guys in there and keep them there,” Doxey said.

There’s no guarantee that the inmates would get paroled under the bill, and they must be model prisoners to be eligible, Doxey said.

Other Senators were hesitant to give any drug dealer a break.

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said that just because it’s the first time the dealers are convicted, that doesn’t mean it was the first time they sold drugs.

“It’s just the first time they got caught,” Fillingane said. “Why would we do something like this?”

Doxey said the parole board would have discretion on whether the inmates were released. He said the inmate population in Mississippi grows by nearly 1,000 convicts a year. He said street-level crime sweeps often get small-time dealers, not the major suppliers.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said the bill, as written, would make about 1,300 inmates eligible for parole.

The bill took a contentious turn during Senate debate when Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, tried to attach an amendment that would have applied to minors convicted of robbery or burglary of an occupied dwelling only when the victim was not injured.

“What we’re trying to do here is give them the benefit of the doubt and not throw them away,” Horhn said of youngsters convicted of crimes. “These young people often times deserve a second chance.”

Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona, who served 2 1/2 years on the state Parole Board, argued against the amendment to include burglars and robbers.

“When people go into an occupied dwelling, it’s a completely different category,” she said.

Horhn’s amendment was shot down.

The bill is as much a finical consideration as it is a crime proposal. Horhn said the legislation would “help relieve the state budget of the crisis we have been in.”

Epps said there’s no guarantee that such a program would save significant money.

“They’ll be eligible for parole, but there’s not guarantee they would get paroled,” Epps said.