At the end of June 2020, after many months of negotiation and debate, both the House and the Senate of Mississippi passed a Bill, SB2123, that was intended to restore the possibility of parole to many categories of offender.
Two hours and ten minutes before this legislation would have passed into law, it was vetoed by Tate Reeves, the Governor of Mississippi.
Tate Reeves’ decision
In “explaining” his decision, Tate Reeves stated that he felt the Bill had “gone too far”.
- He expressed the view that this legislation, if passed, would lead to risks to public safety.
- He specifically complained that it gave parole access to prisoners sentenced for Capital Murder who had NOT been sentenced to death or to “Life Without Parole” but simply to “Life”.
- He stated, when pushed in a press conference, that he did not trust the parole board.
His comments appear to demonstrate a strange lack of understanding of criminal justice and of democratic principles.
Across the world, outside of the United States, most countries – including the whole of Europe – have parole arrangements more generous than those proposed by this Bill. Those arrangements allow for offenders to reform. Prisoners who are still dangerous are not released. In the UK, the average length of time served by a murderer before parole is 16 years. The streets of the UK and Europe are quiet and safe and nobody is quaking in their boots. Contrary to what Tate Reeves has been persuaded to imagine, there is no country in the world in which the possibility of reformed offenders being granted parole after many years in prison result in streets being overrun with violent criminals.
Did this legislation go “too far?” We don’t think so. It did not give violent offenders automatic release. It simply opened the door, a little crack, to those who, after serving many, many years, could persuade the parole board that they no longer posed a risk . Tate Reeves was concerned that some lifers might be released after “only” twenty. Is twenty years not long enough for a person to change? Or for a prison system, where they can be observed every day and his attitudes assessed, to work out whether they have changed? We don’t think so.
This bill explicitly excluded prisoners subject to Death or to Life Without Parole. It specifically excluded habitual offenders and sex offenders. Yet Governor Reeves made much of the fact that in the cracks of these huge exclusions, this bill proposed the slim possibility of parole – subject to the agreement of at least four out of five members of the parole board – to that tiny number of Capital Offenders for whom the Court had determined that, exceptionally, neither Death nor Life Without Parole was the appropriate sentence, and who are therefore sentenced only to “Life”. The sentencing distinction, between “life” and “life without parole” (which can be made in other homicide cases, not just capital ones) reflects the recognition that within any category of offense, even the worst, there are cases which are more serious or less. For a long time, the denial of parole access to all Lifers has virtually overriden this legal distinction. Mississippi has an Alice-in-Wonderland logic where “life without parole” means no parole – but so does Life “with” parole. This bill intended to restore sense to this situation.
Governor Reeves’ comments about the composition of the Parole Board were chilling. In answer to a direct question in his press conference about whether he trusted the Parole Board to make sensible decisions, he simply said “no”, and moved on to the next business. A little later, it was pointed out to him that the Parole Board were people he had appointed HIMSELF, and he was asked to elaborate. This question put Governor Reeves on the spot. Perhaps the words that then came out of his mouth were things he would not have said if he had time to reflect.
He explained that he felt constrained to veto this bill because his term of office is limited, and that he was only guaranteed control of the parole board for the remaining 3 years of his office – and another four if he gets re-elected. Sooner or later the people of Mississippi would exercise their democratic right to elect a different Governor who might appoint different people to the parole board, who might make decisions he wouldn’t want them to.
We understand that these pesky limitations on tenure and control are frustrating for politicians. All around the world, there are rulers who feel so hostile to the possiblity of democratic change, that they find ways round this situation. We call them dictators. If Governor Reeves is only prepared to make law if he can guarantee that it will forever be implemented in his image, by the people he has chosen, in the way that he wants, without limitation to his own period of democratic office, and without regard to the electorate’s future will , then he should consider his position as an American politician.
So why this veto?
Governor Reeves was elected with claims that he wanted to reform Criminal Justice. Even when explaining this veto, he continued to protest that this was the case. Of course he wants reforms! Just not these reforms. As evidence of his reforming zeal, he pointed out that he had actually passed legislation that mandated the appointment of one person to oversee improvements to re-entry arrangements for prisoners on release. Not inherently a bad idea, but evidence of a brave reforming leadership? What can one say? Lame?
We don’t have access to his soul. We don’t know why he has taken this decision. We do know that it was taken against the unrelated backdrop of a new spike in the corona virus pandemic, that has struck at least 26 legislators and many of their staff. Over the last few days, with the pandemic now at his own door, the tone in his recent press conferences has been one of rising panic. Governor Reeves has now got to make difficult, unpopular, perhaps brave and career-limiting decisions about the management of this immediate public danger. No doubt that has made it difficult for him to make measured or brave decisions about any other issue.
But we also know that his veto was applied after concerted, doubtless well orchestrated and well funded, lobbying against this reform. Those with vested interests in the prison industrial complex make a lot of money from the long sentences and high incarceration rate in Mississippi. Such wealthy people give substantial support to politicians – or withhold it – and Governor Reeves is only in his first term of office. He would like another. We know he was also lobbied by many District Attorneys and others in elevated positions in the Criminal Justice system, whose careers and mindsets are based on the notion that offenders cannot change, that long sentences are a social good. They all told him – notwithstanding the contrary provisions in the Bill itself, notwithstanding the experience of the rest of the world – that if this Bill were to be passed, it would lead to Mississippi streets being overrun with rapists and murderers. These are influential movers – more so than the thousands of ordinary folk who expressed to him their support for this legislation. Governor Reeves chose who he would listen to. He was under a lot of pressure at a difficult time. As he made clear in the previous day’s conference, he did not have as much time as he would have liked to think things through.
Could this veto be overridden?
Theoretically, yes. The Governor’s veto can be overridden. This would require a 67% vote in both the House and the Senate. `
But the math is against this possibility. It’s plausible in the House, but overwhelmingly against us in the Senate. (For background on the voting referred to here, see the breakdown here).
To get to 67% in the House, assuming all members voted, we would need 80 votes out of 119. (There are currently three vacancies). We had 78 votes. We could bring this up if all those who had previously only voted “For” but were absent on the day of this vote could be persuaded to attend and vote, and none of those ten representatives who had switched to a “For” position, having previously voted “Against”, had a change of heart.
This looks quite positive, but the picture in the Senate is different.
To get 67% in the Senate, assuming they all voted, we would need to get 35 out of 52 votes. We had 25. (Even of these, 4 were “switchers” who might revert to their previous “Against”.) All the Democrats voted “for”, in any case, so we would need to win 10 more Republican votes, at a point when the Republican Governor has just demonstrated that he is NOT behind reform, as they may previously have imagined.
To believe that we could get to 35 votes, we would need to believe in a scenario such as the following:
- we retain ALL of the solid votes (the Democrats and handful of Republican senators who voted “For” both times) AND
- none of the 4 Republican switchers who moved from “Against” to “For” between the two votes, revert to their previous “Against” BUT
- all of the 5 Republican switchers who moved from “For” to “Against” now come back and vote “For” AND
- both of the Republican senators who abstained now decide to vote “For” AND
- at least three Republican senators who have voted solidly “Against” up till now, decide to vote “For” in this final ballot.
Other scenarios are possible – but not plausible. What is likely is that (many of) the republican senators who have so far been pro-reform, having been led to believe that they had a pro-reform Governor behind them, will now slink off with their tail between their legs, and either vote “Against” in line with their governor, or tactically disappear from the chamber.
So what next?
What is next is another year and another legislative session in 2021. We will be giving serious thought to how we work with all of the positive forces around us, to achieve in 2021 some of the things that we so nearly achieved this year. That battle will start soon. Watch this space. Get in touch if you would like to be part of it.