Originally published in the Daily Journal

by David Safavian and Autumn Billings

Anyone who has driven on I-55 has seen the bumper sticker that reads: “Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way.” When it comes to Mississippi’s prisons, the same could be said of Governor Reeves.

It is no secret that the Mississippi Department of Corrections is in crisis. MDOC is being investigated by the Justice Department for civil rights violations. Multiple lawsuits have been filed because of the horrible conditions of the state’s prisons. And now, COVID-19 has reached the cell blocks. If allowed to fester, these problems will cost the state millions in litigation and trigger an expensive federal takeover of the prison system.

Modest prison reform legislation was approved by the legislature in June to address overcrowding, safety and sanitation issues. Despite overwhelming, bipartisan approval, Governor Reeves vetoed Senate Bill 2123. In explaining this drastic action, the Governor cited objections from a handful of very vocal sheriffs, who have a vested interest in the status quo. But the status quo is unsustainable.

With Mississippi having the second highest imprisonment rate in America, SB 2123 is desperately needed. It would have allowed the Governor’s Parole Board to consider more candidates for parole. Of course, those who remain a threat to the public would be rejected. But by expanding the pool of people who could apply for parole, the state could reduce its prison population and costs. MDOC would have more funds to fix the prisons and avoid litigation. And it would encourage good behavior by inmates hoping one day to qualify for parole, thereby making prisons safer.

In rejecting SB 2123, the Governor relied on inaccurate information from the bill’s opponents. For example, in his Facebook post explaining the veto, the Governor claimed that the legislation went “too far” because “a criminal can get parole if they’re convicted of crimes that could get them the death penalty but they get sentenced to life imprisonment instead.”

In Mississippi, people convicted of capital crimes face one of three sentences: death, life in prison without parole, or life but with the possibility of parole. SB 2123 would not have allowed anyone actually facing a death sentence or life without parole to be released. However, those who were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole might have a chance – however unlikely – to leave prison one day.

The Governor also stated that “[r]ight now, you’re eligible to get out of prison at 60 unless you’re a trafficker, habitual offender, or violent criminal,” and that SB 2123 “totally eliminates those protections.” Under SB 2123, however, habitual offenders and people convicted of drug trafficking would be excluded from parole eligibility. For elderly inmates – who are much more expensive to imprison because of their healthcare costs – the bill would have permitted “geriatric parole.” But it would be limited to those who are at least 65 and have served at least ten years behind bars – a group that rarely reoffends due to age.

While the legislation would have granted more offenders a shot at parole, it provided no guarantees. The Governor’s own Parole Board would have to review the entire file, including the offender’s record, his likelihood to re-offend, and the views of the victim. Only then could the Board even consider granting parole. These measures would have provided strong assurances that dangerous people would remain in prison.

The approach taken by SB 2123 is not new. Other states have put in place more flexible parole standards as a way to offer a pathway to redemption and deal with prison overcrowding. Utah, for example, has broader parole eligibility than Mississippi, and yet has a lower crime rate.

It seems the Governor vetoed this much needed bill based on bad information. But the bottom-line result is the same: MDOC has few options to address problems that long predate Governor Reeves’ election. Left unchecked, Mississippi will face costly lawsuits and potentially an even more expensive result: a federal takeover. But it’s not too late. If the Governor really wants to fix the prison system, he should call a special session of the legislature and put forward a proposal that preserves the spirit of SB 2123 while addressing his concerns. Otherwise, the legislature has every reason to override Governor Reeves’ veto.

DAVID SAFAVIAN is the general counsel of the American Conservative Union Foundation. AUTUMN BILLINGS is ACU Foundation’s Assistant General Counsel.