Branning against bill that would expand the possibility of parole

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JACKSON — A bill that would make more inmates eligible for the possibility of parole is before the governor, but state Sen. Jenifer Branning has her doubts about the measure being signed.

“I have my doubts about that but we will see,” said Branning, R-Neshoba County, who voted against the measure.

Last week, the Senate voted 35-13 and the House voted 91-25 to pass the final version of Senate Bill 2795. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans.

“I felt like there were not adequate protections from a public safety perspective,” Branning said of her vote against the bill. 

Reeves vetoed a bill last year that was similar but not identical to the one that legislators passed on Tuesday. 

A key difference proponents say is that this year's bill would not allow parole consideration for anybody convicted of murder, said Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Juan Barnett, a Democrat from Heidelberg.

“I think the bill from a public safety perspective was a big improvement over the bill that was brought forward last year,” Branning said. “I just think it went just a little too far. My reasoning was just public safety.”

In Neshoba County in August 2018, habitual offender Robert Leon Jackson had been out of prison for seven months on the state’s Earned Release Supervision Program — separate from parole — when he murdered Megan Staats and Jeremy Apperson at the CEFCO convenience store.

Staats was the clerk inside and Apperson was pumping gas with his family in the vehicle.

Since Jackson was first jailed in November 2002 for armed robbery at age 14 in Hinds County, he has spent over 80% of his life in jail. Even with that amount of time behind bars, Jackson served less than 48% of his total sentencing.

Proponents of the bill point out that Mississippi has some people serving long sentences for nonviolent offenses, and the state's prison system came under Justice Department investigation last year after outbreaks of violence among inmates.

The parole measure was introduced by Sen. Sampson Jackson II, D-Kemper County, among others.

Rep. Scott Bounds, R-Neshoba County, voted in favor of the measure as did Rep. Michael T. Evans, I-Kemper County.

Current state law says inmates convicted of some crimes after June 30, 1995, are ineligible for parole. 

The House Corrections Committee chairman, Republican Kevin Horan of Grenada, said the bill that passed last week would allow the possibility of parole for people convicted of armed robbery.

Current Mississippi law also says a person convicted of a nonviolent crime must serve at least 25% of the sentence before becoming eligible for a parole hearing. 

Senate Bill 2795 says that for nonviolent crimes committed after June 30, 1995, an inmate would have to serve at least 25% or 10 years before the possibility of a parole hearing. A person with a 60-year sentence could get a parole hearing after 15 years under current law and after 10 years under the proposed change.

People convicted of some crimes would remain ineligible for parole. Those crimes include murder, human trafficking, drug trafficking and many sex crimes.

In an interview after the Senate vote this year, Barnett said opening the possibility of parole to some inmates could provide hope. He said inmates would be encouraged to take part in job training or other programs offered by the Department of Corrections. He said good behavior would help during parole hearings.

“If we don't ever find the ability to forgive those people — and yet and still, we go to church on Sunday mornings and pick up this holy book and read and talk about how much we love Christ and how we should live according to how Christ has lived,'' Barnett said.

Branning said the state’s real problem is prison overcrowding and that is why she supported a measure introduced by Rep. Scott Bounds, R-Neshoba County, to reopen the Walnut Grove Correctional facility to house Mississippi Department of Corrections prisoners.

“(Walnut Grove) would provide a better facility,” Branning said. “It would provide a better inmate to guard ratio and that comes from conversations with (Mississippi Department of Corrections) Commissioner (Nathan “Burl”) Cain. He and I talked about that several times. Walnut Grove is in my district and so I have assisted him in whatever he needs for that facility. I think this bill probably in conjunction with the availability of the Walnut Grove Correctional facility puts us on the right path.”

The Walnut Grove bill also is awaiting Reeves’ signature.

The five members of the state Parole Board are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.


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