Valuing Uniforms Over Uniform Justice

Out of the handful of bills attempting to address cracks in the criminal justice system in Mississippi, most fail before they are introduced inside of the committee process. During the 2017 legislative session, two bills passed in both houses, but only one was signed into law: House Bill 645 “The Blue, Red and Med Lives Matter Act” more commonly known as “Back the Badge”.

House Bill 645 enhances penalties for offenses committed against law enforcement officers, firefighters, or emergency medical technicians. The “Blue Lives Matter” legislation that has appeared across the country was created in direct response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, as it has brought an increased awareness of assaults against persons of color by law enforcement. This heightened awareness has led to an increase in public demonstrations throughout the country and a heightened level of anxiety between communities of color and law enforcement. This new law adds law enforcement, firefighters, and medical responders to a protected class that doubles the usual penalty if a crime is committed against them. This legislation passed both houses of the Mississippi legislature and was signed by Governor Bryant in March, before the end of the session.

The second piece of criminal justice reform legislation that passed unanimously in both houses was House Bill 1033, a bill that came directly from the bi-partisan Re-Entry Council, established through the first round of criminal justice reform legislation in 2015. House Bill 1033 would have:

  1. Ended automatic incarceration for non-payment of fines, restitution, and/or court costs; a 1983 Supreme Court ruling said a person can only be jailed for non-payment of a fine if the court could prove the person had the means to do so. The ACLU of MS sued Harrison County for creating a ‘debtor’s prison’ because, essentially, the only reason certain individuals were incarcerated was because they didn’t have enough money to pay their fines or court costs.
  2. Expanded parole eligibility to individuals who have not been convicted of a violent crime, drug trafficking, or has been designated as a habitual offender as long as he/she has served 25% of his/her sentence. This is another effort to chip away at the state’s prison population by allowing more individuals to receive a hearing to determine whether or not they are ready to go home. Eligible inmates would receive priority placement in educational development and job training programs.
  3. Required a report from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) to conduct a census of jail populations throughout the state. This report, along with recommendations for an ongoing reporting mechanism would’ve been presented to the legislature by November 2017.
  4. Created a sentencing disparity task force to study and report disparities in sentencing for crimes in order to “promote the interest of uniform justice throughout the state of Mississippi”.
  5. Developed a new process to address sentencing revocations. This process would have revised the ability of the parole board to send individuals back to prison for parole violations. The process calls for a hearing within twenty-one days of the person’s detention for the violation and reduces the number of days that a person can be sentenced for their first and second technical violations.
  6. Allowed courts to deviate from imposing the maximum sentence to individuals classified as habitual offenders. This allows for varying circumstances such as the stacking of offenses where an individual can be classified as a habitual offender because of multiple felony charges.

This legislation would’ve continued the state’s efforts at ending mass incarceration by sending more people home and providing more job training opportunities to them so that they can find employment and successfully re-enter their communities.

Although this legislation received bi-partisan support and unanimously passed both houses, Governor Bryant vetoed House Bill 1033. In a statement released on April 18th, he said the “good intentions” that originally started in the bill were “ultimately spoiled”.

The only specific example the Governor named was parole eligibility for certain habitual offenders. He ended his statement by saying he is “committed to ensuring Mississippians are safe in their person and property”.

Other criminal justice reform efforts that didn’t make it as far as HB 645 or HB 1033 were: a bill to create mental health courts and automatic restoration of voting rights for disenfranchised individuals. In addition to the unwillingness to establish mental health courts that would help individuals with a mental illness receive the help that they need instead of going to jail, the state also slashed the mental health department budget, leaving communities and families without a safety net for medical attention and counseling.

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