Several criminal justice measures making way through legislative process

Irina Baranova

The Senate Corrections Committee approved several criminal justice bills Wednesday as the session nears the end of its third week of work.

All of the bills approved by the committee were authored by its chairman, state Sen. Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, who has authored some criminal justice reform bills in the past few years.

One of the biggest bills that can go for a floor vote is Senate Bill 2273, which would authorize an offender on probation or parole to have their employer to submit regular information using video chat to probation officers instead of direct meetings between the offender and supervisory official.

There were also bills authored by Barnett that renewed the state’s pilot work release program until 2024, the state Parole Board to 2026 and extended the Prison Overcrowding Emergency Powers Act (first passed in 2018) to 2026. Lawmakers attach sunset provisions known as repealers to bills to force them to re-evaluate the law and possibly make changes after three or four years.

If a repealer isn’t extended, the law is repealed.

State Sen. Joey Fillingane (R-Sumrall) authored SB 2584, which would create a pilot program for so-called re-entry courts in some of the state’s circuit court districts. These courts are designed to supervise the return of a convict to the community and use the authority of the court to apply sanctions and positive reinforcement to support them and prevent recidivism.

SB 2584 has been referred to more than one committee (double-referred) because it falls in the discretion of more than one committee, in this case Corrections and Judiciary B, which is the judiciary committee in the Senate that handles criminal justice legislation.

There are also some criminal justice reform bills in the House as well.

State Rep. Dana Criswell, R-Olive Branch, has filed two bills concerning civil asset forfeiture, which is the legal process where law enforcement agencies can seize property that they can prove is linked to a crime. Once forfeited by a court, the seizing agency can use the proceeds to supplement their budgets, even if a conviction of the property owner isn’t obtained. Property owners must prove in a civil court that their property was not involved with a crime.

House Bill 600 would require a more rigorous evidentiary standard to be used by a court when possibly forfeiting property to a law enforcement agency. The bill would also prevent law enforcement agencies from being able to convince a property owner to surrender their property in exchange for dropping charges in a case.

HB 598 would require a conviction for forfeiture of property in cases involving conservation officers enforcing the state’s game and fish laws.

State Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth, is the chairman of the Judiciary B Committee, which handles most criminal justice bills in the House. Here are some of the criminal justice reform bills he’s submitted:

HB 409 would mandate that civil asset forfeiture proceeds go to the enhancement of the seizing authority and would require that proceeds not be used to reduce existing department budgets.

HB 622 would require expungement for any person for whom a criminal case was dismissed or a jury returned a not-guilty verdict.

HB 630 would require any voter who had a crime that prevented them from voting who had it expunged to have their voting rights returned.

HB 981 would allow anyone sentenced as a habitual offender and who served at least 20 percent or 15 years of their sentence (whichever was less) to file a motion with a court to reduce, set aside or vacate their sentence.

The state has made steady progress at criminal justice reform since 2014, when the first criminal justice reform bill was passed in the Legislature.

HB 585 was signed into law by then-Gov. Phil Bryant. The passage of this landmark law, which reduced mandatory sentences for drug and property crimes, started seven years of progress designed to reduce the state’s incarcerated population.

Last year, Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law SB 2795, which changed the way the state does parole, with non-violent offenders eligible after serving 25 percent of their sentence and violent offenders eligible after serving 50 percent.

The state’s incarcerated population decreased from 21,008 on January 3, 2014 to 16,931 on January 3, 2022, a decrease of 19.4 percent.

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