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Parole Board revamp, victim notification among bills before Legislature

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Parole Board revamp, victim notification among bills before Legislature

Feb 22, 2024 | 11:12 am ET
By Mina Corpuz
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Parole Board revamp, victim notification among bills before Legislature
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Photo courtesy of Mississippi Today

Over a dozen bills have been introduced in the Legislature this session to revamp the state’s parole system, including at least one filed in response to the release of a man who killed his two family members. 

House Bill 112, by Rep. Price Wallace, R-Mendenhall, would require the Parole Board to send certified mail notification to crime victims, victim’s family or a designee before a parole hearing. 

One of Wallace’s constituents is Zeno Mangum, the son of one of the victims of James Williams III, who killed his father and stepmother and was granted parole last year despite opposition from family members and lawmakers. Mangum previously told Mississippi Today his family opposed Williams’ release and didn’t receive notification about a parole hearing, which Parole Board Chairman Jeffery Belk disputed

“I’m sure there’s others out there who haven’t been notified either,” Wallace told Mississippi Today about his bill. 

Among the findings from a June 2023 review by the Legislative Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee was that the board could improve its victim notification process.

In a sample of 100 inmates, PEER found two instances in which an inmate with a registered victim had a parole hearing in 2022, but there was no record in the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ inmate database of the victim receiving notification of the hearing.

Wallace said the requirement of certified mail, which needs a signature for delivery, would show proof that victims and families are notified of a parole hearing ahead of time. 

The bill would take effect after passage, and it has been referred to the House’s Judiciary B and Corrections committees. 

Here is a look at other parole-related bills proposed this session.

Parole Board membership 

House Bill 114 by Rep. Wallace would dissolve the current five-member Parole Board and require the governor to reappoint three of five members who have a minimum five years’ law enforcement experience. Wallace told Mississippi Today he believes this perspective is valuable in making decisions to release people. 

Currently, only one member, Marlow Stewart of Terry, a former MDOC probation and parole officer, has law enforcement experience. Chairman Belk is a former Chevron executive.

Among the other findings from the PEER report was that the Parole Board conducts unnecessary parole hearings for offenders who could qualify for presumptive parole and has not improved in maintaining minutes documenting its parole decisions.

The bill has been referred to the Corrections Committee and Apportionment and Elections Committee, of which Price is a member. 

Senate Bill 2352 by Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, would reconstitute the Parole Board and set requirements for one member to have law enforcement background; two to be licensed attorneys, one with a background in prosecutorial law; and two who own businesses in the state. 

The bill would also require parole hearings to be public and broadcast live on the Department of Corrections website. Other information would be required to be posted online, including notice of hearings for violent offenders, parole and revocation outcomes and guidance documents the Parole Board uses to make its decisions. Notification of upcoming parole hearings would be through first class mail. The bill has been referred to the Senate Corrections and Government Structure committees. 

Notification before parole hearings 

House Bill 844 by Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, would require the Parole Board to solicit recommendations from members of the criminal justice system, including the original judge and prosecutor in the case and the attorney general’s office, when a person applies for parole. Before a hearing, notification would need to be sent to the original prosecuting attorney and judge and the police chief and sheriff of the municipality and county where the conviction happened. The bill has been referred to the Corrections Committee, which Currie chairs.

Keeping parole eligibility on the books 

House Bill 357 by Rep. Daryl Porter, D-Summit, House Bill 755 by Rep. Fred Shanks, R-Brandon, and House Bill 1454 by Rep. Jansen Owen, R-Poplarville, would extend the repealer on parole eligibility reforms. Under the current law, parole eligibility is set to be repealed July 1, and the bills would push the repealer to 2027. 

Under the parole eligibility reforms, those convicted of nonviolent and non-habitual drug offenses would become parole eligible after serving 25% of their sentence or 10 years. Those convicted of violent crimes would have to serve 50% of their sentence or 20 years to be eligible. For specific violent offenses such as carjackings and drive-by shootings, a person would have to serve 60% of their sentence or 25 years.

The reforms also include geriatric parole eligibility for incarcerated people age 60 or older who served at least 10 years. 

Owen’s bill has been referred to the House’s Judiciary B Committee, and Shanks’ bill to the House Corrections Committee. Porter’s bill was referred to the Judiciary B and Corrections committees. 

House Bill 710 by House Minority Leader Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez, would decrease the amount of time someone convicted of a violent crime would have to serve before becoming eligible for parole. 

Johnson’s bill proposes that a person serve 25% of the sentence or 10 years. Under the current law, those convicted of violent offenses would have to serve 50% or 20 years, or 60% or 25 years, for specific offenses such as carjackings and drive-by-shootings.

The bill also would require three yes votes to grant parole to someone convicted of a violent crime after June 30, 1995, and four votes to parole someone convicted of capital murder or a sex offense. The bill has been referred to the House’s Judiciary B and Corrections committees.  

FWD.us, a bipartisan group that focuses on criminal justice and immigration issues, lauded efforts to continue parole eligibility in Mississippi. 

“Without parole and other commonsense reforms to safely reduce the state’s highest in the nation imprisonment rate, Mississippi cannot continue to improve public safety, strengthen the state’s workforce, and sustain the strong long-term economic development Mississippians deserve,” Mississippi State Director Alesha Judkins said in a Tuesday statement. 

Parole eligibility for juvenile offenders

House Bill 1065 by Rep. Jeffrey Harness, D-Fayette, would allow those who were under the age of 18 when they committed an offense, sentenced for a violent crime and otherwise not eligible for parole at an earlier date, to become eligible once they reach the age of 21. A parole hearing would be required before being released. The bill has been referred to the House’s Judiciary B Committee. 

House Bill 361 by Rep. Porter and House Bill 571 by Rep. Johnson called the “Juvenile Offender Parole and Rehabilitation Act,” would allow a person who was under the age of 18 and wasn’t eligible for parole at an earlier date to become eligible after serving 20 years.  A parole hearing would be required before being released. Both bills have been referred to the House’s Judiciary B Committee. 

House Bill 1554 by Joey Hood, R-Ackerman, proposes parole eligibility for those who committed offenses while under the age of 18 and received a life sentence after they have served 40 years. For those sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and were under 18, they would be parole eligible when they reach the age of 65. The bill has been referred to Judiciary B and Corrections committees.

Senate Bill 2022 by Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, would allow alternative sentencing and parole for people who were under 18. A court without a jury must hold a separate sentencing proceeding to determine whether to sentence a defendant to life or life without parole. 

If the court finds a life sentence is unacceptable, it can sentence 20-40 years for first degree murder, 15-30 for second degree murder and 25-50 years for capital murder. This would apply retroactively regardless of when the offense, arrest and conviction happened. 

A death penalty cannot be imposed if the person was not at least 18 when the crime was committed, which is in line with U.S. Supreme Court rulings around sentencing for juvenile offenders. The bill was amended and approved by the Senate’s Judiciary B Committee, which Fillingane chairs. 

Parole and probation officers

House Bill 948 by Rep. Harness would limit the number of cases probation officers handle to 75. The bill has been referred to the House’s Judiciary B Committee. 

Senate Bill 2024 by Sen. Hill would limit the number of cases of parole and probation officers to 50. If their caseload ratio is greater than an average of 51 for over a 3-month period, the Division of Community Corrections within the Department of Corrections would face a civil fine of $7,500. One half of that fine would be paid directly to the officer or supervisor, and the other half would go to the state general fund. The bill has been referred to the Senate’s Judiciary B and Corrections committees. 

The American Probation and Parole Association doesn’t recommend specific caseload standards, but rather recommends agencies adopt a workload strategy to figure out their specific caseload and staffing needs. Some suggested standards for supervision are 20:1 for intensive cases, 50:1 for moderate to high risk and 200:1 for low risk.