Sentencing rules may be lifted

Published 12:29 am Tuesday, February 26, 2008

JACKSON (AP) — Nonviolent offenders who sell marijuana or resell prescription drugs on the streets would become eligible for shorter prison sentences, under a bill that passed the Mississippi House on a divided vote.

House Corrections Committee Chairman Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, said Mississippi’s prison budget has grown dramatically since the mid-1990s, when the state enacted a law requiring all felons to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being considered for parole.

A bill that passed the House 69-52 Monday would lift the 85 percent rule for people convicted of selling marijuana or reselling prescription drugs. Those offenders would become eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their time.

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The bill moves to the Senate for more debate.

This is not the first time lawmakers have considered easing the 85 percent rule for some offenders, and it is unclear how the proposal will fare in the Senate. While lawmakers are trying to control spending, many campaigned on promises to be tough on crime.

Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, argued against easing the 85 percent rule for any felons. He said his aunt was killed by ‘‘a would-be burglar who was just a crackhead’’ who had been in and out of prison for convictions of several nonviolent offenses.

‘‘My aunt stepped out of her kitchen and she caught a bullet in her chest,’’ Formby said.

Rep. David Myers, D-McComb, said his older brother was murdered by a habitual criminal. But he argued that it’s a good idea to ease the 85 percent rule for some offenses, saying some judges are giving disproportionately long sentences and the state budget is strained.

‘‘The state of Mississippi can no longer afford to have a lock-up, lock-up attitude,’’ Myers said.

Mississippi lawmakers enacted the 85 percent rule for all convicted felons in 1994. The law started having an impact during the 1995 state budget year.

Some lawmakers Monday asked Malone whether people convicted of selling marijuana or reselling prescription drugs to children would still face the 85 percent rule for sentencing. Malone said the bill did not keep the stronger penalty for people selling to minors, but he would try to add such provisions later this session if the bill goes into negotiations between the House and Senate.

Rep. Alex Monsour Jr., R-Vicksburg, said that wasn’t good enough. He said three minors in Warren County were killed by using illegal drugs late last year.

‘‘It’s time we started worrying about these kids that have been killed by drugs,’’ Monsour said.

House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, is an attorney who often defends people facing felony charges. He implored his House colleagues to consider the effect a long prison sentence would have on a promising young person who messes up and gets caught with marijuana.

‘‘Everybody in this room has had a second chance,’’ Blackmon said. ‘‘So don’t be afraid of giving someone else a second chance.’’