Advocates reflect on 2015 Legislative gains, losses

The 2015 session of the Mississippi Legislature closed on Thursday, April 2. Mississippi Catholic asked some Catholic advocates to reflect on some of the issues they were watching during this session.

Criminal Justice/Mental Health
(Submitted by Andre De Gruy, Capitol Defense Council and member of Jackson St. Richard)
The 2014 Legislature marked a sea change in how the legislature addressed criminal justice issues.  In passing sweeping reforms (HB 585) the legislature took an evidence-based approach to the problem of over-incarceration.
The 2015 Legislature stuck to this new approach for the most part. They rejected numerous attempts to roll back the law. The consensus of policy makers seemed to be that a commitment was made to the new evidence-based approach and until effects of the changes could be evaluated no significant changes would be made.  The first meeting of the Corrections and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force, created by the law to monitor the reforms, will be next month.
Just as the 2015 Legislature recognized, it’s too early to draw conclusions on the reforms; but early indications are good. The Department of Corrections did not need to run a deficit this year; total number incarcerated
is down approximately 20 percent; and there are more violent offenders in custody than non-violent.  Each of these changes bucked recent trends.
The 2015 Legislature did take a small step backwards from the new evidence-based approach.  House Bill 1052 expanded the crimes eligible for the death penalty to include multiple killings, e.g., three or more killings in a single incident.  The bill’s sponsor in an op-ed in The Clarion-Ledger, wrote “with seemingly more mass shootings and serial murders nationwide” he supported the expansion.  He noted that a similar law in Texas was used to prosecute the killer of Chris Kyle (the soldier who was the subject of the book and movie “American Sniper).”
While high-profile tragedies such as this and the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Co., evoke strong emotions and apparently led to the passage of 1052, the evidence indicates that these type events are not increasing. USA Today did a comprehensive review of “mass” killings (using the FBI definition of “mass killing” as four or more people in a single incident).  The evidence indicates a decline in number of incidents across the country with none occurring in Mississippi.  From 2006-10 the national average per year was 32; from 2010-14 the average was 26.  Data from the Mississippi Department of Corrections on admissions for more than one homicide from 2008-14 indicate a similar decline.  From 2008-11 the average per year was 14; from 2011-14 the average was 9.
The 2015 Legislature took positive steps to improving our troubled mental health system. HB 545 was amended to include a provision that would allow a state funding match for community mental health centers to establish regional holding facilities to provide a place other than jail for people awaiting a bed at a hospital. HB 1563 funded a grant program at the Mississippi Home Corp. to establish an integrated supportive housing program to help people with serious, persistent mental illness move back into the community. Both of these bills will help people with mental health problems who all too often are inappropriately diverted to the criminal justice system.

Tax reform
Advocates for the poor applauded the failure of a series of tax cut proposals. House Speaker Phillip Gunn proposed eliminating the personal income tax in stages over the coming years. Republican supporters believed that letting people keep their money would generate more spending and help the economy grow. Other lawmakers proposed different cuts.
When Gunn released details of his bill, Sara Miller, senior policy analyst at the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, spoke to The Clarion Ledger, saying that eliminating the state’s income tax would likely result in a “tax shift” instead of a tax cut.
“If we eliminate the income tax, in order to avoid drastic cuts to vital state services like schools and universities, revenue would have to be raised in other ways like sales taxes and property taxes – taxes that hit lower and middle income Mississippians especially hard,” Miller said. “… Most other states that do not have an income tax have special circumstances that allow them to collect revenue in other ways, like royalties from natural resources — as in Alaska, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming — or revenue from major tourism industries, as in Florida and Nevada.”
Ed Sivak, the founding director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center – an initiative of the Hope Enterprise Corporation, and member of Jackson St. Richard Parish praised lawmakers for rejecting the extreme cuts. “When we fail to create the conditions for the most vulnerable to succeed, we limit the potential of the whole society.  Thankfully, for people in poverty and for our people served by Catholic Charities, the decision by the Mississippi Legislature to reject the large tax cut proposal was the best possible outcome,” he said in an email.

Special Education
Representative Carolyn Crawford of Pass Christian helped shepherd a special education voucher program through the legislature this year. Crawford, a member of Long Beach St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, has a child with special needs and her husband is a special education teacher. “I know that world, I know the need, I’ve been there,” she said.
Under the pilot program created by the bill, parents who have special needs children in public school will have the option to withdraw their children and apply for a $6,500 voucher to seek education in a non-public setting such as a private school, online curriculum or other resource. The children must have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) .
“I hope this will improve public education as well,” she said. She pointed out that the law gives parents a little more leverage when they build their IEP with their school. Crawford said she hopes the measure will help parents and schools work better together to find resources for children with special needs.
“Even if I didn’t have a child in special education, my calling as a social worker was always to help those who can’t help themselves and my faith calls me to do just that,” she said. “If we as a government are helping people we have an obligation to look out for the most vulnerable,” she added.

Another failed proposal would have changed the requirements for childhood vaccinations in the state.
Some people do not want their children to receive vaccinations so they wanted a law that would allow more exemptions. Lawmakers disagreed and left requirements as they are. Dr. Sara Weisenberger, a pediatrician and instructor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said she and other health care advocates strongly opposed the vaccination bill. The current policy “allows us to protect the general population with strict rules, yet it allows medical professionals to recommend exemptions when they are medically indicated,” she said.
Weisenberger, a member of Gluckstadt St. Joseph Parish, said there are cases in which a child should not be immunized, but the cases are rare and those kids are generally protected because the other kids in the population have been immunized. This so-called herd immunity keeps easily preventable, but devastating illnesses from returning. The issue has gotten recent media attention after an outbreak of measles started with un-immunized children at a Disney theme park.
“This is the right thing to do for society. We (the medical community) can make good, ethical decisions about who should be exempt,” she said.