We are keeping an eye on two criminal justice reform bills that are currently in conference, SB 2841 & SB 2197. Conference on a bill occurs when further discussion is needed by members of both the House and Senate. A conference consists of three Representatives and three Senators who work together to finalize a bill. Once a bill is out of conference, it must go to both the House and Senate for a vote before heading to the Governor. The deadline for bills to come out of conference and pass the House and Senate occurs this week. Any bills passed out of conference will then be sent to the Governor to be signed into law.
This bill will expand access to alternative sentencing through drug courts and other specialty courts. Alternative sentencing through those courts help to decriminalize non-violent drug related offenses and allow support and rehabilitation programs instead of jail time for drug-related offenses.
The bill will also reduce the chances of someone having their license suspended merely because they are unable to afford fines and fees. Unpaid fines often generate arrest warrants and lead to suspended licenses. The practice of suspending license because of unpaid fines creates a system of criminalization affecting poor families across the state, which can have a negative impact on their employability and financial security.
Finally, this bill will provide protections for employers in order to remove disincentives for hiring people with a felony record. Supporting policy that increases employability is crucial to criminal justice reform. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95% of all people currently incarcerated will be released at some point. Without supportive policy that aids re-entry, those people would not have access to the tools of upward mobility that help them return to society. Effective re-entry legislation like SB 2841 addresses that issue and represents a progressive reform in the state.
An amendment in SB 2197 will authorize the establishment of mental health courts throughout the state. These courts will reduce counterproductive over-reliance on incarceration to handle mental health patients. Jails should not be used to warehouse people suffering with mental illness. To date, Mississippi citizens who suffer from mental illnesses have been deemed criminals for their offenses and sent to jail and prison facilities. The adoption of this policy will address the ailments created by those practices and provide alternatives to incarceration.
Community-based treatment and monitoring has been effective in other states in addressing concerns associated with the over-reliance of incarceration and its impact of people who suffer from mental disorders. With financial support from the state, these courts will serve as gatekeepers, helping to prevent mental health patients from winding up in the criminal justice system.