State Net Criminal Law Update: Bryant Signs Off On Mississippi Sentencing Overhaul

BRYANT SIGNS OFF ON MS SENTENCING OVERHAUL: Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed prison sentence reform legislation last week that supporters say could save the Magnolia State $266 million over the next decade. The bill, HB 585, requires those convicted of a violent offense to serve at least 50 percent of their sentence, while anyone convicted of a nonviolent offense will serve at least 25 percent before being eligible for parole. The measure also allows judges greater flexibility to impose alternate sentences, including sending convicted drug users to treatment instead of jail. Circuit courts will also be authorized to establish treatment programs for military veterans suffering from mental health problems like clinical depression, drug and alcohol problems or even traumatic brain injuries.

Mississippi follows a host of other states to make major sentencing changes in recent years, including Texas, Georgia and West Virginia. As with many of those efforts, the driving force was budgetary. Mississippi has the second highest incarceration rate in the country, trailing only Louisiana, and as prison rolls have grown so has the portion they take out of the state budget.

"The growing cost of corrections is unsustainable for Mississippi taxpayers," Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves (R) said at the signing ceremony for the measure. "Our goal with this legislation is to rein those costs in while continuing to protect the public from violent offenders."

The reforms also drew praise from the Pew Charitable Trust, which said the law "places Mississippi among the leaders of a growing number of states advancing data-driven, research-based policies that improve public safety and reduce public spending on prisons."

In addition to sentence reforms, the new law for the first time defines which crimes are classified as violent and creates a state oversight council that will track the outcomes of those reforms. The new law goes into effect on July 1. (CLARION LEDGER [JACKSON], BILOXI SUN-HERALD, MISSISSIPPI GOVERNOR'S OFFICE)

GOVERNORS IN BRIEF: CALIFORNIA Gov. Jerry Brown (D) told a gathering of law enforcement officers last week that he is open to making changes in his signature prison realignment program, but was not specific about what those changes might look like. Brown and lawmakers adopted the realignment plan in 2011 as a way to reduce the state's wildly overcrowded prison system. It has since reduced that population by over 25,000 inmates but has drawn criticism from law enforcement agencies because many of those offenders have since been reinterred in county jails, some for years-long sentences (SACRAMENTO BEE).

CRIME & PUNISHMENT: The WISCONSIN Senate gives final approval to SB 196, a bill that would bar law enforcement from using drone aircraft in their investigations without first obtaining a warrant. It moves to Gov. Scott Walker (R) for review (MILWAUKEE JOURNAL-SENTINEL). • WASHINGTON Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signs SB 5064, legislation that abolishes automatic life sentences for convicted murderers 15 years old or younger, instead making them eligible for parole after 25 years. Judges would still be able to, at their discretion, issue life without parole sentences to 16- and 17-year olds (TACOMA NEWS TRIBUNE). • WASHINGTON D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray signs legislation that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under the measure, possession of less than an ounce of pot would be punishable by only a $25 fine, though smoking weed in public could still get the user six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The bill now undergoes a 60-day review by Congress (WASHINGTON POST). • The FLORIDA Senate approves a bill that would grant criminal immunity to people with clean criminal records who fire a warning shot or threaten to use deadly force in self-defense. It moves to the House (MIAMI HERALD).

— Compiled by RICH EHISEN

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