Bryant signs justice reform bill into law

Published 7:00 am Saturday, April 5, 2014

Earlier this week, Gov. Phil Bryant signed House Bill 585into law, which some believe to be a key piece of criminal justice reform legislation.

The 194-page bill is expected to save the state $266 million on incarceration costs and establishes sentencing minimums for violent crime convictions.

“The growing cost of corrections is unsustainable for Mississippi taxpayers,” said Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves in a press release. “Our goal with this legislation is to rein those costs in while continuing to protect the public from violent offenders.”

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For the first time, the law will also classify which crimes are considered violent.

Along with sentencing standards for violent crimes, the law, which goes into effect on July 1, will provide judges with more flexibility to issue alternative sentences, like drug court.

The Hon. Prentiss Harrell, a 15th District Circuit Court judge who is in charge of the  district’s drug court, said while he hasn’t read the bill in full, he thinks it’s a step in the right direction.

“Any step forward for what we’re doing is positive,” Harrell said.

Harrell said he currently has 225 people participating in the district’s drug court and that if these people would be in jail, they would not be paying taxes or their fines associated were in court proceedings and conviction.

He said the 15th District drug court has an 85 percent rehabilitation rate.

The need for reform came after a bi-partisan taskforce of 21 lawmakers, lawyers, judges and prosecutors spent months auditing the state’s corrections system.

Fifteenth Circuit Court District Attorney Hal Kittrell said establishing sentencing standards for violent offenses allows his office to reassure victims that the offender will serve time.

The law states anyone convicted of a violent offense is required to serve at least 50 percent of a sentence and convicted nonviolent offenders would be required to serve at least 25 percent.

“We’ve never been able to define that for our victims,” Kittrell said.

The bill would also strengthen requirements that victims be notified before an inmate is released from prison.

Another important part of the bill is that it provides definitions of violent crimes. Kittrell said previously the district court system depended on the Supreme Court for violent crime definitions.

Kittrell said he has not had a chance to read the bill in its entirety at this time due to its length.

“We pledged to Mississippians that we would make this the ‘public safety session’, and we have worked hard to develop this ‘Right on Crime’ research-based plan that is tough on crime while using resources wisely where they make the most impact. As a former law enforcement officer, I have no tolerance for career criminals or violent offenders, and this legislation will allow Mississippi the resources to hold these offenders accountable,” Bryant said in a press release.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.