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This bill can save Mississippi big time

Being born in Texas and raised in Mississippi, I never know how to answer the question, “Where are you from?” Answering anything but “Texas” in the Lone Star State can get you a raised eyebrow or a look of suspicion. But I recently cut my losses on trying to explain my dual heritage, and just go fifty-fifty in my response. When you come from two conservative states that have both passed criminal justice reform, it’s difficult to choose.

Mississippi first passed comprehensive criminal justice reform in 2015. HB 587, dubbed the “Right on Crime” bill, pushed public safety to the forefront of the criminal system by prioritizing space for those who endanger Mississippians. For nonviolent offenders, the bill increased access to less costly alternatives, providing a projected savings of $266 million over the next ten years.

Now Mississippi is adding more fiscally-sound reforms to that record. Governor Phil Bryant just signed HB 387, a bill that works to prevent locals from being automatically jailed for inability to pay fines or fees. Taxpayers lose when people are locked up simply because they struggle to make ends meet.

Mississippi has the chance to build upon the success of HB 387 if Governor Bryant signs SB 2841. This legislation, passed unanimously by the House and Senate, ensures that parolees who are working hard to stay out of trouble can’t be denied earned discharge credits solely based on being too poor to pay fines or fees. This is a good reform that would save the Department of Corrections from avoidable parole costs.

Concerns have been raised that SB 2841 would hurt debt collection practices. For that, I say look to Texas. Conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht experienced this same pushback when he urged the Texas legislature to offer community service in place of fines or fees for indigent Texans. After reforms were passed in 2017, he reported that more money is being collected with fewer people being jailed, 13 percent more to be exact. Just like Mississippi, the tough on crime state has learned that it’s both morally responsible and fiscally conservative to lock people up for the right reasons.

Through a number of reforms started over a decade ago, Texas has saved $3 billion, closed eight prisons, and cut crime by 31 percent. That is the kind of success Mississippi can achieve if it continues down the path of criminal justice reform.

I’m proud of Governor Bryant for signing HB 387 and hope that he’ll do the same with SB 2841. It would reassure Mississippians that redemption is possible regardless of the size of their wallets.

 

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