Sen. Juan Barnett

The Mississippi Senate has moved criminal justice reform in the state along with the adoption of the conference report for SB 2795, the Mississippi Earned Parole Eligibility Act. The bill passed on a vote of 35 to13.

The bill was authored by Senator Juan Barnett (D) who chairs the Senate Corrections Committee. He presented the bill on the floor Tuesday. The Legislation resembles SB 2123 that was passed in 2020 but vetoed by Governor Tate Reeves.

Barnett said there is one major difference in this bill and the one from last year – no murder – meaning, no individuals convicted of murder are to be granted parole under this legislation.

RELATED: Senators take another shot at Criminal Justice Reform after 2020 veto

“Nothing in this bill addresses murder,” said Barnett.

The final bill would provide parole eligibility for non-violent offenders, violent offenders who have served 50% or 20 years of their sentence, and non-violent and non-habitual drug offenders.

However, those not eligible are sex offenders, human traffickers, murderers, capital offenders and habitual offenders.

Senator Barnett stressed the fact that the bill is only speaking to the possibility of parole if the criteria is met by the inmate; it is not granting parole to anyone at this time.

“It’s not giving anybody parole, it’s not. It’s just a tool we are using to help MDOC manage behavior,” said Barnett. “A lot of people are incarcerated because they have no hope in life, they had nobody to believe in them.”

He said the programs now offered through MDOC allow for individuals to see hope after committing a crime, noting that this bill falls in line with providing inmates who are eligible with the opportunity to do better.

“Maybe I should have called it the Hope Bill and people wouldn’t feel so bad about it, because that’s all it is,” said Barnett. He added that hope is free and if that is all that the Legislature can give to someone, they should.

Barnett was hopeful that Governor Reeves would sign the bill if it makes it through the House of Representatives. He said there has been much back and forth on how to craft the legislation to make everyone happy, but at the end of the day no one is getting exactly what they want out of it.

RELATED: Mississippi House and Senate on cusp of an agreement for criminal justice reform

“We don’t ever get 100 percent of anything. I just feel like at this point, 75 percent I think we can agree on, 75 to 80 percent of this. So why not let the 75 or 80 percent that is going to do some good not out-weight the 20 percent we may disagree on,” asked Barnett.

The chairman said this should be a starting point for the state to build from in continuing criminal justice reform.

The bill must still pass the House in order to move to the Governor’s desk. Another bill that has yet to be addressed in the criminal justice reform movement is the habitual offender bill, HB 796. 

UPDATE: Tuesday March 30, 2021

The House took up SB 2795 after returning from lunch. After Chairman of Corrections Rep. Kevin Horan gave an explanation of the bill and the changes made after the veto of SB 2123, a point of order was raised. This caused the bill to be laid aside until the point of order could be verified as well taken, or not well taken.

When the House returned the bill was passed by a vote of 91 to 25. The legislation will now head to the Governor.