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McMillan good choice for parole chief

STARKVILLE – Gov. Phil Bryant’s choice of former Hinds County sheriff and Jackson police chief Malcolm McMillin as the new chairman of the State Parole Board is one that empowers a career law enforcement officer who also has had to deal with the realities of jail overcrowding and management.

McMillin succeeds Shannon Warnock of Ridgeland, who has a law degree but whose background was in economic development. Warnock stepped down in order to care for her mother.

The burly former sheriff is no stranger to tough decisions and no stranger to conflict and controversy. During his five terms as Hinds County’s top law enforcement office, McMillin battled the Hinds County Board of Supervisors over budget disagreements, jail overcrowding and jail funding.

McMillin grew up in Natchez, but spent his summer on a truck farm with his uncle and aunt on Turkey Creek near Dentsville. In an interview almost a decade ago, McMillin said: “My father died when I was seven, and I don’t have many memories of him, so I can’t say that I really learned any lessons from him. One thing I remember my mother telling me that’s stayed with me is that you can always tell a lot about a person’s character by the way he treats people who wait on him or work for him. My mother was a waitress, who worked very hard to raise my sister and me after my father died.”

After high school, McMillin said his “senior trip” was a tour of duty in Southeast Asia as an 18-year-old military policeman in the U.S. Air Force.

McMillin is also known as an incredibly talented actor in the Jackson area, where his most memorable role was the part of “Big Daddy” in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In Jackson and the surrounding area, McMillin raised awareness and money for a host of charities.

But McMillin’s true gift as the new head of the State Parole Board will be his up close and personal understanding of the relationship between the state’s judicial system, corrections system, and the parole process as it relates to impacts on local jails.

In 2003, several years before taking the post of Jackson police chief while simultaneously serving as Hinds County’s sheriff, McMillin offered this assessment: “It’s difficult to determine beyond the short-term needs essentially what our jail space needs are, because in the 12 years I have been in office, we’ve never had a criminal justice system that worked. We’ve been plagued with overcrowding caused by the state housing its inmates in county jails throughout the state. Now we are dealing with overcrowding as a result of the increasing numbers of pre-trial detainees who have yet to be indicted, tried, sentenced, and moved into the state system. So it is difficult to determine future jail space requirements without knowing what the system could do if it actually worked properly.”

Finding the formula between maintaining a “tough on crime” posture while managing the finite amount of jail space in Mississippi has – as McMillin noted – been almost a constant problem. Overcrowding of local jails because of the backup of state prisoners was alleviated somewhat by the boom in private prisons and subtle changes in the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

But the eleventh hour pardons by former Gov. Haley Barbour and the subsequent political battles that followed between Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood and the former governor has shaken public confidence in the State Parole Board. Issues arose from the Barbour pardons that led to several as yet failed legislative efforts to restrict the governor’s power to pardon.

The bottom line is that Mississippi could do a lot worse than to have a tough, experienced old sheriff leading the State Parole Board. McMillin lacks neither courage nor vision and has proved time and time again that he’ll follow the law no matter the consequences. After all, this is the man who once arrested the mayor of Jackson. McMillin’s relationship with the mercurial late Mayor Frank Melton is just one of the political gantlets he’s run that qualify him for this demanding new post.

Again, in his own words, McMillin can also see parole decision from the perspective of law enforcement: “There isn’t an ‘average’ day in the life of a law enforcement officer. Law enforcement officers who believe there’s an average day or an ordinary call put themselves at great risk. Law enforcement is unpredictable and uncertain and can be dangerous, but it can also be rewarding and fulfilling. It’s been all of those things for me.

“I answered a domestic disturbance call one night. I knocked on the door and stepped to the side as I’d been trained to do and someone in the house fired a shotgun through the door. I have fired my weapon and been fired upon. Given the option, I would rather not do either again,” McMillin said.

(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com)