Criminal justice legislation passes, heads to Bryant

JACKSON — Legislation to make Mississippi’s criminal justice system more efficient and less expensive won final approval yesterday from state lawmakers.

The House voted 105-13 and the Senate voted unanimously to send a revised, final version of House Bill 585 to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who is expected to sign it. If he does, it would become law July 1.

“We pledged to Mississippians that we would make this the ‘public safety session,’ and we have worked hard to develop a research-based plan that is tough on crime while using resources wisely where they make the most impact,” Bryant said in a news release.

Both chambers had passed a version of the bill Monday, but it was put on hold and sent back for more negotiations after a Gulf Coast prosecutor raised concerns about the state’s current laws dealing with people caught with large amounts of marijuana. During the final round of talks, legislators expanded drug-trafficking provisions to add penalties for anyone convicted of having at least a kilogram of marijuana. Punishment would be 10 to 40 years in prison.

Until now, people with that amount of marijuana have been prosecuted for possession of an illegal substance rather than drug trafficking, said House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton.

“This bill recognizes the distinction between an addict, who there may be hope of rehabilitation, and a trafficker,” Gipson said.

Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, who’s a criminal-defense attorney, said he doesn’t object to changing the drug trafficking law, but he’s skeptical that the change would make any difference.

Blackmon said “when someone gets caught with a truckload or more of marijuana,” federal authorities handle the prosecution. He said he believes state prosecutors would still let federal officials handle big marijuana cases, even if the state law is strengthened.

House Bill 585 was filed after judges, prosecutors and lawmakers spent months studying Mississippi’s criminal justice system. Supporters say it could cut prison costs by $266 million over 10 years.

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 impose alternate sentences, such as ordering treatment for drug users. It would strengthen requirements that victims be notified before an inmate is released from prison. Also, Mississippi law would specify, for the first time, which crimes are classified as violent, for sentencing purposes.

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