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Criminal justice legislation moves forward

law_webJACKSON — A bill that supporters say could make Mississippi’s criminal justice system more efficient and cut prison costs by hundreds of millions of dollars is one step from going to Gov. Phil Bryant.

The House and Senate yesterday both passed the final version of House Bill 585. The House held it for the possibility of more debate, but there’s little chance that opponents will persuade enough of their colleagues to change and vote against it.

The bill, which proposes several changes to the current system, passed the House 105-16. Four of the 52 senators voted against it, and one voted present.

“This bill ensures that violent criminals are held accountable for their crimes, and it provides a second chance to veterans and other Mississippians who have made mistakes and want to take steps to get their lives back on track,” Bryant said in a statement.

The bill was filed after judges, prosecutors and lawmakers spent months studying the criminal justice system. Supporters say it could make the system more efficient and cut prison costs by $266 million over 10 years.

“It is the most sweeping piece of legislation, certainly in the criminal justice system, that people can remember,” Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, told his colleagues yesterday.

The bill says anyone convicted of a violent offense would be required to serve at least 50 percent of a sentence, and anyone convicted of a nonviolent offense would have to serve at least 25 percent. The bill would give judges more flexibility to give alternate sentences, such as ordering treatment for drug users. It would strengthen requirements that victims be notified before an inmate is released from prison. It would also, for the first time in Mississippi law, specify which crimes are classified as violent, for sentencing purposes.

“This is a bill that is going to have a profound and dramatic impact on our criminal justice system,” said House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton.

House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Mark Baker, R-Brandon, argued extensively against the bill, saying he opposed it because the sheriff, district attorney and other elected officials in Rankin County were concerned that the proposed changes could hurt public safety. Baker cited a part of the bill that would set a $1,000 minimum before property theft would be considered a felony rather than a misdemeanor. Current law sets a $500 threshold.

Baker said someone who has saved up to buy a $999 used car might never get it back if it’s stolen, but those with more expensive vehicles might get more attention from law enforcement agents.

“Rich fat cats, lawyers and doctors … they’re going to get their car back,” Baker said.

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