Bill allows thousands to be eligible for parole

Published 5:17 pm Friday, February 29, 2008

The Senate has passed a bill that would make about 7,000 inmates eligible to appear before the state Parole Board.

Under the bill, nonviolent offenders who were convicted of possessing small amounts of drugs would be eligible for parole. Currently, the state’s “truth-in-sentencing laws” require them to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before parole consideration.

The bill excluded inmates convicted of homicide, robbery, manslaughter, felony child abuse, kidnapping and other serious crimes.

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The bill passed 32-19 and now moves to the House.

“We have an opportunity to begin to stabilize the growth in the Department of Corrections because the Parole Board will have an exit valve they can use to get more offenders out,” said Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland.

Mississippi’s inmate population has experienced enormous growth since the “truth-in-sentencing” laws were enacted in 1994. That year, prison spending was $109.6 million. The budget for the Mississippi Department of Corrections for the current fiscal year is $327 million.

The state’s prison population is 24,795.

During debate, Simmons warned his colleagues that Mississippi didn’t want to become like other states in the past that “had to put individuals on barges and float them up and down the river” because there were not enough places to house inmates.

Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to make it apply only to first-time drug offenders. He said that would still allow many inmates to come before the Parole Board.

Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona, who was a member of the Parole Board, opposed the amendment. She said the board considered parole for about 3,000 inmates in 1997. Chassaniol said the 85 percent requirement has reduced that number to 1,300.

A similar bill passed on Monday in the House. That bill would lift the 85 percent rule for people convicted of selling marijuana or reselling prescription drugs. Those offenders would become eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their time.

The bills are Senate Bill 2136 and House Bill 729.

Bills that have passed the Senate and move to the House for more work:

DATABASE: Senate Bill 2148 would require the names of people convicted of crimes against law officers and public officials to be kept in a public registry. The proposal was inspired by the death of Officer Robert Langley, who was killed by a University of Mississippi student during a 2006 traffic stop.

PRISON: Senate Bill 2642 would authorize the Mississippi Department of Corrections to enter into a contract to build a regional jail of up to 3,600 beds in Claiborne County.

COPPER THEFT: Senate Bill 2929 would put restrictions on how metal recyclers handle the purchase of metals, particularly copper. The bill would require recyclers to keep records of the sales and in some cases report the sales to law enforcement. The bill is in response to the rash of copper thefts in Mississippi. The House passed a similar bill Thursday. House Bill 1136 moves to the Senate.

Bills that passed the House and move to the Senate for more work:

UNEMPLOYMENT — House Bill 909 would increase the weekly unemployment benefit. The maximum rate has been $200 a week since 2002. Under the House bill, it would go to $244 a week this July 1; starting July 1, 2009, the rate would go up according to a cost of living index.

ELECTIONS — House Bill 703 would authorize election officials to remove dead candidates’ names from ballots.

PORNOGRAPHY — House Bill 598 would prohibit the reproduction of child pornography during a law enforcement investigation. The Senate has passed a similar bill.

CLOSED MEETINGS — House Bill 972 would allow municipal or regional airport authority commissioners to meet privately with an airline, cargo, commercial or industrial prospect for business development at the airport.

Bills killed by the House:

ACUPUNCTURE — House Bill 724 would have established a state board to regulate the practice of acupuncture. House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said the state medical association opposed the plan.

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