NOTE: This blog post has been updated twice since it was initially published. Latest update reflects the fact that one of the relevant bills, HB1377, died due to time limits on 17 June 2020.
Greg Malone and Carly Rheilan, June 2020
Greg and Carly summarise the position for bills seeking parole reform, near the end of the (delayed) 2020 legislative session, as they relate to Life prisoners.Link to the bills as currently amended are available at http://www.legislature.ms.gov/legislation/measure-search/ but be careful you scroll to the end of the relevant pages to see the most recent amended versions.
For the background to our organisation’s interest, see the various blog posts on this website, particularly our earlier update, posted in March. In a nutshell, we are campaigning for parole access for people sentenced to Life Imprisonment in Mississippi, particularly those sentenced when as teenagers or young adults.
SB2123 is the “Surviving” Bill relevant to parole for most offenders
As of June 17 2020, SB2123 is still “live”. This Bill was passed by Senate with damaging amendments shortly before the Legislature closed due to Covid, and has subsequently been passed by the House of Representatives, with the damaging amendments removed.
A precisely mirroring Bill (HB1377, proposed by the House of Representatives) died on June 17 due to time limits.
A further Bill (HB1024) which originally proposed giving parole to habitual offenders has been seriously watered down so that its most recent manifestation now offers nothing to existing habitual offenders and only makes it a little harder for new offenders to get that label. (This legislation is going to conference and might be slightly salvaged at that point to include non-violent habitual offenders, but this is a long shot.)
There are currently two different versions of this Bill, one passed by the Senate, one by the House. Because there are two different versions, the legislation has to go through an additional process, Conference, to reach a compromise recommendation, before being voted on again in both chambers.
What is the same in both versions
First – who it does NOT include. Both versions exclude all of the following
- “habitual” offenders (with exception of non-violent offenders unders specific circumstances – see below)
- (almost all) sex offenders
- offenders sentenced to Life Without Parole for offenses committed at age 18 or above
- offenders sentenced to offenses which specifically preclude parole (these are few and far between, eg Treason – most offenses currently excluded from parole are excluded in the general parole law (MS47-7-3), which SB2123 would REPLACE, rather than being excluded from parole as defined in the specific legislation about the offense.)
For other offenders, both versions of SB2123 propose
- For non violent offenders, parole access after 25% served
- For violent offenders, parole access after 50%
- For offenders aged 60 or over, violent or non-violent, parole access after 10 years or 25% of sentence served, whichever longer
- For non-violent habitual offenders parole access after 10 years or 25% of sentence served, whichever shorter, if the sentencing judge authorizes parole (or if the sentencing judge is retired, disabled or incapacitated, the senior circuit judge)
As currently worded both bills include a Reverse Repealer. This is a “wrecking clause” which repeals the legislation before it comes into effect. (This can be removed at the next stage, but does not have to be – more below).
What the House version of the bill includes but the Senate Bill does not
The House of Representatives amended SB2123 so that it also included:
- For non violent offenders, parole access after ten years, if this would give parole access sooner than 25% served or if the offender is sentenced to life.
- For violent offenders, parole access after twenty years, if this would give parole access sooner than 50% served, or if the offender is sentenced to life.
- For offenders sentenced for offenses committed before age 18, parole access after twenty years unless eligible sooner under other provisions (effectively, this abolishes “life without parole” for juveniles)
SB2123 will next need to go to a “Conference Committee” where the above discrepancies – and the issue of the Reverse Repealer will be thrashed out and a compromise position reached. (No other issues can be amended at this stage). The Conference Committee will then make a recommendation to the House and Senate. The Committee is comprised of 3 Representatives, appointed by the Speaker of the House, and 3 Senators, appointed by the President of the Senate, who holds the role of Lieutenant Governor.
We are pleased to note that the three Senators appointed to the Conference all voted FOR the legislation when it was first voted on. House of Representatives members have not yet been announced.
At the end of its deliberations, the Conference Commitee makes a recommendation as to the form in which the Bill should be altered and passed. This could be a recommendation to pass with or without the additional proposals of the House version, and with or without the Reverse Repealer in place – with it still in place, the legislation is “passed” but is null and void and will have no effect. (This can represent a statement that there is in principle support for the legislation but “this is not the time for it” – sometimes a way of delaying legislation for reconsideration in a future year.)
Both the Senate and the House then have to vote on this recommendation. If either house refuses to pass the Bill in the form proposed by the Conference Comittee, it dies.
If passed by both houses, the bill is passed to the Governor for approval. If approved by the Governor it then becomes law. (If the Governor did not approve the legislation, two slender threads of legal possibility for passing it remain – but we are optimistic that if passed by the House and Senate, the Governor would not in fact veto it.)
Actions for supporters
We are so close to real change, but everything could still be lost at this point.
- The Reverse Repealer could be left in place, rendering the legislation null and void.
We need to keep up the pressure! So please:
If you live in Mississippi, try to persuade your Senator and Representative to support whatever recommendation is made by the Conference (it may not be all that we want, but the alternative is nothing).
If you can get to Jackson, go in person and lobby your Senator and Representative (try to make an appointment or just turn up and ask to speak to them). Otherwise write to them by post or email. Follow this link and enter your zipcode to find out who your Senator is.
Arguments you may wish to include when writing to your Senator / Representative
As well as any general arguments such as those below, do include some personal words about any loved one who might be affected by this legislation – why they deserve a second chance, the difference it would make to them and to your family etc if they had it.
Some of the general arguments that you might also include are that supporting this legislation will:
- Reflect public opinion and the growing concern about mass incarceration – which is higher in the USA than anywhere else in the world and higher in Mississippi than almost anywhere else in the USA. (Supporting this legislation is a vote winner, not a vote loser!)
- Save taxpayers money which could be better spent elsewhere – allowing parole after 20 years to a lifer sentenced at 18 would save the state half a $million in incarceration costs (at current costs – it will naturally go up over time). (Supporting this legislation will make politicians other objectives easier to achieve.)
- Potentially allow the closure of the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which will otherwise have to be rebuilt at massive public expense within the lifetime of current inmates . (Ditto)
- Demonstrate Mississippi’s Christian values – forgiveness, the value of each life, the possibility of repentance. (Whether Republican or Democrat, this legislation is in line with the best values of this State)
- Give hope of a second chance to inmates who have reformed. (Ditto)
- Protect communities, many of which (particularly black communities) are desperately damaged by the prolonged absence of a large proportion of their menfolk, who return only when they are too old to contribute. (Supporting this legislation is a vote winner, and will prevent other problems which will otherwise impact on political goals)
- Improve prison discipline by giving all inmates an incentive for reform and good behaviour. (The current “nothing to lose” culture of MDOC inmates lay behind the devastating rioting that occurred after Christmas)
- Will not mean that dangerous offenders are simply “let lose”, adding to risks to society at large! Parole is not automatic, and is only granted to offenders who can demonstrate reform. Countries and states which have shorter sentencing and allow parole are not more “unsafe” than Mississippi. (In UK, persons committed to prison for life are paroled after an average of 16 years, and recidivism in this group is low.)