Advocates praise parole reform law signed by Governor Bryant

By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – On Wednesday, April 18, Governor Phil Bryant signed House Bill 387 into law. Prison reform advocates are praising it as a long-needed step forward in the state. It has a number of different impacts on parole and sentencing regulations.
“What’s so great is that this is the first step in reform that we have needed for so long. We finally have some momentum,” said Marvin Edwards, coordinator for prison ministry for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson. He was invited to witness the bill signing. He has long advocated for reforms that would help both inmates inside prison and those who have been released and wish to start new lives. “Bigger issues are being tackled. We are getting people involved who have not been,” he said. Edwards said reform, while a moral issue, is quickly becoming a huge economic issue for the state.
André de Gruy, the state public defender and member of Jackson St. Richard Parish, outlined the main points in an email to Mississippi Catholic. He called special attention to two sections dealing with parole violations. Section five of the new law expands parole eligibility for non-violent offenders who were not covered in a previous reform. It means almost 200 non-violent offenders can now get parole. “The vast majority, more than 140, will be parole eligible on July 1; the fiscal impact estimate of this provision is $1.1 million in fiscal year 2019,” he wrote.
Another significant reform eliminates a judge’s ability to “stack” technical parole violations, such as failure to report or pay a fine. The practice means a parolee who has not committed a new crime could be sent back to prison for years on non-violent technical violations.
“The result was that despite 80 percent of revocations involving only technical violations almost 80 percent of people being revoked were going to prison for years not to Technical Violation Centers for 90-180 days. If this change is instituted with fidelity, the savings for the Department of Corrections are estimated to be between $12.3 and $18.5 million dollars,” de Gruy explained.
Incarceration is an expensive business. When an inmate is eligible for parole, but ends up back in a cell because he cannot pay a fine, the state or county has to pay for his food and supervision in an already overcrowded facility. If a parolee does not check in with her parole officer, she can end up back in jail on a parole violation. If she gets a job, she has to ask her employer for time off and find transportation. This can cost the parolee their job – another potential parole violation.
The new law allows parolees to use video conferencing such as Skype or Facetime to check in with their officers, saving the state, the parole officer and the former inmate time and money. The prison system is already running tens-of-millions of dollars in the red so money-saving reforms are welcomed.
One aspect of the law Edwards praised eliminates what some have called “debtor’s prisons” – when a judge can jail a person for not paying a fine. If an inmate cannot pay a fine, the judge has to conduct a hearing to find out if the reason is poverty or willful contempt. If someone does not have the money to pay, the judge has the option to establish a payment plan, lower the fine or waive it altogether.
The law also includes creation of a taskforce to examine sentencing disparity between judges, calls for a jail census, allows counties to request inmate workers and addresses sentencing in non-violent habitual offenses.
Edwards said he looks forward to seeing what comes next in the reform movement. As a member of the Catholic Charities Faith in Action Team (FIAT), he sees an opportunity for Catholics across the state to become engaged in the process. FIAT hopes to educate parishes about advocacy in general and about specific issues people can help with in the state. “Our goal is to be a clearinghouse for parishes to know the issues here,” said Edwards.
Prison reform, he said, is the perfect example. “The legislators want to do something, but if they don’t have support from the people, they are not going to rock the boat,” he explained. If Catholics knew what reforms are needed and thoughtfully contacted their lawmakers, Edwards is convinced more and even better reforms can happen. The law goes into effect July 1.