The Mississippi Legislature could be contemplating legislation that might help assist ex-convicts transition to gainful employment and avoid returning to prison.
Lawmakers from a combined committee of the House and Senate Judiciary B and Corrections committees held another joint hearing last week as they consider a new round of legislation, with several speakers from various states with programs lawmakers might look to copy in the Magnolia State.
These programs are important because 95 percent of prisoners return to society after their sentence. More than 650,000 ex-cons are released from prisons nationally and studies show that two out of every three of those will return to prison within three years after committing a new crime or failing to following the conditions of their release.
Jeff Dunn, the Alabama Corrections Commissioner, told the committee that his department’s guiding principle was that reentry starts at entry.
“That period of 18 to 24 months prior to release or parole is really a critical time,” Dunn told the committee. “That’s where the most investment, in my judgement, needs to take place.”
One of those ways that Alabama does that is one of its community colleges is dedicated solely by charter to inmate education and Dunn says it’s been one of the Alabama DOC’s best partners when it comes to providing GED (general equivalency diploma) and vocation education. The Alabama DOC is partnering them with them on reentry and Dunn says they have a 100 percent success rate in getting vocationally trained inmates placed in jobs in their trade.
While Dunn says it’s a pilot program at present, but he intends to expand it statewide. The Alabama reentry programs serve anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 inmates.
Dunn said the measure for the success of the program was measured in recidivism (which he defined as a convict returning to the prison system on a conviction within three years of release or less). He said their rate was 28 percent, considerably lower than the national average.
Louise Wasilewski is the CEO of Acivilate Inc, an Atlanta-based company that develops software that help the recently released check in with parole officers and conduct video meetings between parole officer and former inmate. It can help state officials monitor the location of the recently released using location-based services. The software is used in several states, such as Georgia and Utah, but not in Mississippi.
The software can send reminders to the recently released of parole hearings and other important events related to the recently released. She said that while the state’s rate of technical violations (inmates who are returned to prison because they violated the conditions of their release) is low at 29 percent, having a software-based solution that be utilized to send text reminders can reduce this number even further.
Scott Peyton is the Louisiana and Mississippi State Director for Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice reform group that was founded in Texas in 2007 as a project of the Texas Public Policy Institute.
“We can’t just be tough on crime,” said Peyton, a former law enforcement and parole officer in Louisiana. “We also must be tough on criminal justice spending. This means demanding more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety.”
He said corrections costs will be the second-largest growth factor in state budgets, behind only Medicaid. In Mississippi, corrections spending bottomed out at $306 million in 2019, but has increased to $323 million in fiscal 2022, which began on July 1. That’s an increase of 5.6 percent.
He said data from the non-partisan group Recidiviz shows that Mississippi taxpayers could save $1.3 million annually for every percentage point the state’s recidivism rate drops.
Criminal justice reform began in Mississippi in 2014, when the Legislature passed the first round of legislation. Coupled with another bill passed in 2018, the state expanded parole eligibility retroactively for non-violent offenders and ended the practice of sending people to prison because of non-payment of fines.
Then-Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law House Bill 1352 in 2019, also known as the Criminal Justice Reform Act. This bill cleared obstacles for the formerly incarcerated to find work and prevents driver’s license suspensions for not only non-moving controlled substance violations, but also unpaid legal fees and fines.
The new law also updated drug court laws to allow for additional types known as problem solving courts.
Bryant also signed into law Senate Bill 2781, known as Mississippi Fresh Start Act. This bill eliminated the practice of “good character” or “moral turpitude” clauses from occupational licensing regulations, which prohibited ex-felons from receiving an occupational license and starting a new post-incarceration career.
This year, Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law SB 2795, which makes more inmates eligible for parole. After he vetoed a similar bill in 2020 because he felt it’d jeopardize public safety by releasing violent felons, lawmakers made it impossible for first- and second-degree murderers to receive parole under the measure. Those guilty of human trafficking, drug distribution and sex-related offenses would not be eligible for parole under the measure as well.