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Lawmakers Save Parole, Punt on Fixing Youth Court

Mississippi lawmakers considered dozens of criminal justice bills. Here is what they did and didn’t do during their first session of the new term.

This is The Marshall Project - Jackson’s newsletter, a monthly digest of criminal justice news from around Mississippi gathered by our staff of local journalists. Want this delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to future newsletters.

Mississippi lawmakers kept parole alive this year, but failed to fix problems with the youth justice system. Those lawmakers also approved harsher shoplifting laws and faster approval for most search warrants.

In the first legislative session of a new four-year term, Mississippi lawmakers considered dozens of criminal justice bills. Today, I’ll highlight a few that will become law — and some that fell short.

—Caleb Bedillion, staff writer, The Marshall Project - Jackson

Parole system renewed for Mississippi state prisoners

Parole will remain possible for thousands of people incarcerated in Mississippi’s troubled prisons after lawmakers voted to renew the program. The state’s parole law would have expired this summer if lawmakers failed to take action.

A bipartisan coalition of reform advocates hailed the extension of parole, which comes after legislators voted in 2021 to expand parole eligibility in Mississippi. Despite that expansion of eligibility, parole rates in the state have been declining.

Electronic search warrants now allowed, but no-knocks shut out

Law enforcement in Mississippi will soon be able to electronically apply for search warrants from judges, and judges will also be able to remotely sign search warrants following the passage of House Bill 295.

One notable exception? Officers can’t request a no-knock search warrant from a judge without meeting that judge in person. “The nature of a no-knock warrant … I would prefer it be very much an in-person relationship between the judge and the law-enforcement officer requesting it,” said Sen. Daniel Sparks, a northeast Mississippi Republican who helped negotiate the final legislation.

ProPublica and the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal previously found that some courts in Mississippi have shielded no-knock raids from scrutiny by failing to retain search warrant records as required by state rules.

Shoplifting laws broadened to include those who don’t take merchandise

A national panic over shoplifting has eased, but Mississippi lawmakers this year expanded felony shoplifting to include anyone who aids or encourages another to shoplift. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Gene Newman, a Republican from Rankin County, said this would include someone who distracts store employees while an accomplice steals merchandise. Criminal justice reform advocates in the state opposed the bill, with one calling it a “tripling down on the failed policies of mass incarceration.”

Governor calls for youth court overhaul, lawmakers resist

Critics have long questioned whether Mississippi’s youth welfare system helps the kids and young adults who go through it. Each county largely manages its youth justice systems, and state laws keep those systems almost completely shrouded in secrecy. A state commission has been studying the issue and recommended changes last year.

“We have 82 different systems of justice for our youth,” said Sen. Brice Wiggins, a Republican from the Gulf Coast area, noting the number of counties in the state. Second-term Republican Gov. Tate Reeves proposed an overhaul of the system this year, but Wiggins’ attempt to secure passage for a scaled-down version of the governor’s plan went nowhere.

New court district lines put off for at least another year

Most of Mississippi’s local judges are elected, including the circuit court judges who preside over felony cases and have broad powers over a defendant’s case, including sentencing. The state’s 82 counties are divided into 23 circuit court districts. Those judicial districts have largely gone untouched for nearly three decades.

In this year’s legislative session, the state Senate led an effort to redraw some of the judicial district lines. The Senate’s new map left some circuit districts virtually intact but significantly redrew some other areas, reducing the number of judgeships in the Mississippi Delta, which is majority Black but has lost significant population in recent decades.

The Mississippi House stopped the effort this session and wants to hold hearings over the summer before tackling the issue again next year.

More criminal justice legislation reporting around the state

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