As We Celebrate Parole Reform in Mississippi, We Must Continue our Fight for Freedom

/By  Alesha Judkins, Mississippi State Director
Senate Bill (SB) 2795 — legislation that would significantly expand parole eligibilitypassed with overwhelming support in both the House and the Senate...

We started this year’s legislative session with a burgeoning sense of hope that in Mississippi we could finally begin to address our worsening prison crisis and get policies that would begin to reduce our state’s dangerously high prison population. We advocated for common-sense criminal justice reforms that would give thousands of people the opportunity to be reunited with their families and communities. After previous attempts to get meaningful reforms passed and falling short, this year felt like the year for new beginnings and possibilities — and it was. Senate Bill (SB) 2795 — legislation that would significantly expand parole eligibility — passed with overwhelming support in both the House and the Senate, making it crystal clear that our state lawmakers understood the need to begin to address our incarceration crisis. 

Legislative leaders in both chambers prioritized criminal justice reform this session and worked hard to ensure SB 2795 made it over the finish line. On April 22, 2021, the Governor signed SB 2795 in law. The bill expands parole eligibility to thousands of incarcerated Mississippians and restores hope to them and their families. This is a significant step forward for criminal justice and a moment worth celebrating. As noted in a parole brief we released earlier this year, the state legislature effectively abolished parole in the mid-1990s. For years, nearly two-thirds of our prison population has been denied the opportunity for parole. It has been an uphill battle to re-establish parole eligibility in Mississippi. But this year we are one step closer to that goal! 

Now, you may be wondering who is impacted by SB 2795. This bill will make people convicted of offenses classified as nonviolent eligible for a parole hearing after serving 25% of their sentence, or 10 years, whichever is less. This provision will be especially impactful for people serving decades-long sentences for drug convictions. SB 2795 also extends parole eligibility to people convicted of most offenses classified as violent, after they serve 50 percent of their sentence or 20 years, whichever is less. Research shows that long prison sentences do not make our communities safer. By extending parole eligibility to people who have been convicted of more serious offenses, our lawmakers are showing that they have a vested interest in keeping us safe, saving precious taxpayer dollars, and reuniting families.

We urge state leaders to continue to work to address the state’s incarceration crisis and ensure those who are ineligible under SB 2795 have an opportunity for freedom and hope soon.

Perhaps the most impactful part of the bill is parole eligibility for people convicted of specific offenses who currently have to serve every day of their sentence without parole eligibility or other early release opportunities. Under SB 2795, people convicted of these offenses  become parole eligible after serving 60 percent of their sentence or 25 years, whichever is less. For instance, people convicted of armed robbery will have a meaningful opportunity for release in the coming years. 

SB 2795 goes into effect on July 1, 2021 and approximately 600 people will immediately be eligible for parole. We know that the harm of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts Black people in Mississippi and this law is a step towards addressing that harm. We estimate that two-thirds of the people who will be impacted by SB 2795 are Black men. This expansion of parole eligibility will also bring Mississippi closer to what other Southern states have already done to address dangerously high prison populations. Alabama, Texas, and Arkansas still have much broader parole eligibility than what will be allowed under the new law. 

For the people who are granted parole, they will have a chance to return to their communities. They will have a real chance to be reunited with their children, parents and all those that they love. Families impacted by incarceration don’t often get a reason to celebrate, a reason to hope. This year they do.

The passage of SB 2795 does not mean the work is over — in many ways it is just beginning. While SB 2795 represents an opportunity for thousands of people to come home, we have work to do to ensure that an opportunity for release becomes people coming home to their communities. As we stop to celebrate this step forward towards freedom in Mississippi, we must also acknowledge that there are many people who were left out of this year’s reforms, especially people who face extreme sentences based solely on prior convictions. People like Tameka Drummer are still serving life sentences for minor offenses without the opportunity for parole simply because of crimes in their past. Recently, the Mississippi Court of Appeals upheld a life without parole sentence for Allen Russell who was convicted of possession of marijuana. We won’t stop fighting for them or their freedom. We appreciate the leadership of state leaders, organizers, advocates, and people directly impacted by the criminal justice system who worked tirelessly to ensure SB 2795 was passed this year. We urge state leaders to continue to work to address the state’s incarceration crisis and ensure those who are ineligible under SB 2795 have an opportunity for freedom and hope soon. 

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