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Barbour signs new laws for corrections, public records

Gov. Haley Barbour has signed into law a bill that could make a small dent in Mississippi’s ballooning prison system budget.

The bill allows terminally ill nonviolent inmates to be released, under certain conditions, no matter how much of their time has been served. It was one of several proposals lawmakers considered this session to try to curb spending on corrections.

The bill became law when Barbour signed it Monday.

“It’s going to help on our medical costs. A lot of those inmates are really, really high-priced inmates. We have some whose medicine is $1,200 a month,” House Corrections Chairman Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, said Tuesday. “Also it seems like a humane thing to do. If you’ve got a patient that’s fixing to die, it’s better to let them go home and die with their family.”

Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said even with the new law, certain criteria must be met before a nonviolent inmate is released. Epps said he’ll meet with the judge, district attorney and the sheriff involved with cases. He’ll also consider the concerns of the victims’ families.

“We also take into consideration where the inmate will be living,” Epps said Tuesday. “Just because somebody is terminally ill doesn’t mean we just let them out.”

Epps said about 21 terminally ill inmates have been released from prison in the last few years.

Another bill that has passed the House and Senate and is awaiting the governor’s consideration would make thousands of nonviolent offenders eligible for parole.

Mississippi’s inmate population experienced enormous growth after 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. Malone said MDOC will need extra state money to continue operating until the year ends June 30.

The parole eligibility bill would allow nonviolent offenders convicted after June 30, 1995, to be eligible for parole after serving a portion of their time. The bill also covers nonviolent offenders convicted of possessing small amounts of drugs.

If Barbour signs the bill, it would become law immediately.

“It should give us some significant relief once they get the ball rolling on it. We are expecting some significant relief on that in our budget,” Malone said, adding that not all offenders will win their parole. “We’ll be happy if 40 percent make it.”

Some of the other bills signed by Barbour will:

— Make crime incident reports public records. The reports will give basic information when someone is arrested, such as who is involved and where and when an alleged crime took place. The bill was pushed by the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information and other open-government groups. The law goes into effect July 1.

— Require the state Drug Court Advisory Committee to develop plans to expand drug court programs that serve adult and juvenile offenders. The law goes into effect July 1.

— Create a task force to study and report on the status of underperforming schools and school districts. The task force also will recommend ways to improve the schools and districts. The task force will issue its report by Jan. 2, 2009. The law took effect when Barbour signed it.

The bills are House Bill 494, Senate Bill 2136, House Bill 474 and Senate Bill 2246 and 2405.