By Maureen Smith
Catholic advocates scored a couple of victories in the 2014 legislative session, including passage of the criminal justice reform bill and a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Other issues, such as Medicaid expansion, again languished. Here is a brief look at the session, which ended Wednesday, April 2.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM
The criminal justice reform bill has the cornerstone of this year’s Catholic Day at the Capitol (CDC). Governor Phil Bryant signed it into law Monday, April 1, and it will go into effect July 1. A task force wrote the mammoth bill, House Bill 585 (HB 585), which includes the opportunity for addicts to go to drug courts and get treatment instead of just jail time, new guidelines on the minimum amount of time served and offers other options to prevent jailing people with probation violations. The bill saw many revisions during the legislative process, but advocates are pleased with the start of what they hope will be more comprehensive reforms to come.
“Although motivated primarily by the escalating costs to the state for our huge prison population, the Mississippi Legislature did the right thing in passing criminal justice reform legislation,” said Msgr. Elvin Sunds, vicar general for the diocese. “Society needs to be protected from violent offenders and those who would commit serious crimes. However, we do not need to fill our prison beds with non-violent offenders and minor drug offenders.
“The objective of our criminal justice system should be reform and rehabilitation so that individuals can return to society as productive citizens. This legislation takes a big step in the right direction by emphasizing alternative to incarceration and by providing judges more discretion in sentencing,” he added
“HB 585 will lead to tremendous improvement in the criminal justice system but it is just a beginning. For example, the law will significantly expand eligibility for drug courts but the funding for the expansion has not been provided. Despite a significant increase in funds for drug courts in the Administrative Office of the Courts appropriation, from $4 million to nearly $8 million, the estimated cost of full implementation is $11 million,” said Andre de Gruy, a member of the Criminal Justice Task Force which wrote the bill. He said while more work needs to be done, this bill includes the ability to do that because it established a follow-up task force to measure outcomes.
“Another area that will need significant improvements is re-entry programs. With people transitioning from prison to the ‘free-world’ there will need to be services to help them adjust to their new circumstances. One of the best provisions of HB 585 is the establishment of an oversight task force to monitor its implementation,” said de Gruy, who is also Catholic.
At CDC, advocates explained that Mississippi has the nation’s second highest rate of incarceration, but there is no proof this practice lowers crime rates or recidivism. De Gruy said many of the reforms lined up with the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops’ 2000 statement “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective,” calling for restorative justice that seeks to recognize that “the dignity of the human person applies to both victim and offender.”
He said the task force looked at research-based alternatives to just putting people in jail with hopes of bringing restorative justice into the system. Restorative justice seeks to heal communities and not just punish offenders.
House bill 1400 bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless a woman’s life is in danger, the pregnancy will permanently injure her or if the baby has an abnormality which would make it unable to survive. This brings Mississippi in line with most other states in the Southeast with similar bans, including Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. Some of those bans are being challenged.
There is only one abortion clinic left in the state, Jackson-based Women’s Health Organization, and the clinic owner told the Associated Press her clinic does not provide abortions after 16 weeks of pregnancy so it would not be affected by the ban. That clinic is already involved in a court battle challenging a 2012 law intended to close it by requiring all doctors practicing there to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. HB 1400 is awaiting the governor’s signature and should take effect July 1.
“Mississippi is overwhelmingly pro-life. Like most people in our country, Catholics and non-Catholics in Mississippi find late term abortions particularly abhorrent. I am glad this legislation provides some limit to this terrible practice and provides additional protection to the unborn,” said Msgr. of the legislation.
DRUG TESTING FOR AID RECIPIENTS
A bill that may require welfare recipients to take drug tests has drawn criticism from advocates for the poor. House Bill 49 requires those who apply for temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) to fill out a questionnaire. Based on that, a person could be ordered to take a drug test. Those who fail the test will be offered treatment before they can receive their aid and will have to undergo a second test after treatment.
Supporters say the bill, already signed by the governor, will strengthen communities by helping those who may need treatment become better parents. Opponents, including Rims Barber, civil rights advocate and head of the Mississippi Human Services Coalition, said this measure will actually discourage people from getting help and unfairly targets the poor.
“There was no evidence that welfare recipients are more likely to use drugs than any other part of our society, and nothing that showed that the state knows how to properly screen and treat people for addiction. What we end up with is a system that makes people feel guilty for even applying,” wrote Barber in his annual legislative roundup. Catholic Charities also spoke out against the measure.
One key issue that did not make the agenda, Medicaid expansion. It failed in last year’s session after much public debate. Advocates tried to bring up expansion again, arguing that it would bring better jobs and economic stimulus to the state, but lawmakers never brought forward a bill in this session. Advocates say they will continue to talk about the issue.
FINANCIAL AID/ COLLEGE COSTS
Although the legislature did raise the eligibility limit to allow some students to attend college, advocates at the Mississippi Economic Policy Center said the increase will only apply to about 500 students and they will continue to push for more opportunities for more Mississippians to get higher education.
In a separate, but related issue, Catholic Charities was part of a group that went to the Capitol to speak with lawmakers about allowing deferred action students, who were brought to the United States as children, to take advantage of in-state tuition at institutions of higher learning.
Monique Davis, director of the Office of Parish Based Ministries, pointed out that these students are considered residents in public elementary and in high schools. Lawmakers told Catholic Charities and immigration representatives they will consider commissioning a study on the issue. Davis said she is hopeful.
Davis said she and her staff are already at work on Catholic Day at the Capitol for 2015. They are considering some format changes to make it easier for people to attend and are working on building stronger relationships with all the lawmakers, but particularly the dozen Catholic representatives.