House 92 hopefuls discuss tort reform, ‘truth in sentencing’

Published 6:00 am Thursday, October 30, 2003

Today The DAILY LEADER continues a special question-and-answerseries with candidates in some of the county’s top races in theNov. 4 general election. Today’s race is for House ofRepresentatives, District 92. Both candidates participated.

During a special legislative session in 2002, lawmakersenacted tort reform measures in an effort to improve the state’slegal climate and its reputation for “jackpot justice.” Many nowsay the legislation is not strong enough. What, if anything, wouldyou do to strengthen tort reform?

Jim C. Barnett, M.D.: 1. Place reasonable capson non-economic damages that may be awarded.

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2. Protect manufacturers and sellers of products from punitivedamages if they have complied with specifically applicablegovernment regulations.

3. Elimination of joint and several liability.

4. Provide additional protections against product defectliability for those who simply sell and distribute productsmanufactured by others without providing additional warranty oralteration of the product.

5. Numerous changes to Mississippi’s joinder and venue laws andrules to stop the joining of numerous parties’ claims andforum-shopping.

6. Prohibit multiple punitive damage awards for the sameconduct.

7. Give greater protection against liability for property ownersand businesses for intentional wrongful acts of others on theirproperty.

8. Enforcement of arbitration agreements.

Buddy Turpin: First of all, there hasn’t beensufficient time to allow this piece of legislation to demonstrateits worth. Other states have enacted many of the same laws. Some ofthem lack the controls enacted in our set of laws.

We have to keep in mind that there are many groups affected bythese laws.

In keeping with our Constitution and the intent to protect thepublic at large, we must try to protect not only the major groupsof contenders, who in turn, serve the public, but the publicthemselves.

The people involved in service to the public often feelvulnerable and at the mercy of those they serve. Likewise thepublic are at the mercy of the caregivers, be it doctor, lawyer,manufacturer or other.

The problems here are so very complicated and involve so manylevels of our public life that it may take years to resolve toeveryone’s agreement.

In the meanwhile, we must try to keep a balance between allfactions and some sanity that will give all parties a fair andequal chance.

We have to remember that the good of the few cannot outweigh thegood of the many.

The state’s “truth in sentencing” law requires allinmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence beforebecoming eligible for parole. Since its enactment in 1994, thebudget for operating the state’s prison system has more thandoubled. Prison Commissioner Christopher Epps recently urged thelegislature to revise the “truth in sentencing” law so it would notapply to first-time or non-violent offenders. Do you agree? Why orwhy not?

Jim C. Barnett, M.D.: I do not agree completelywith Commissioner Epps; although, I am well aware of the criticalsituation we are in due to shortage of prison beds.

Regardless if it was first-time offense or not, I do not want torelease any violent criminal to the streets. As far as thenon-violent offenders are concerned, I feel they should spend atleast a part of their sentence in prison and then go to housearrest. Even a short time in prison would make them much lesslikely to repeat their crime. House arrest can hold offendersaccountable, assure a maximum level of community protection, andsave considerable dollars from the high cost of incarceration whileassisting in reducing the overcrowding of non-violent offenders injail.

Buddy Turpin: The responsibility falls on us asa community. We live in a system that allows men and women to makethe laws. We as a people have to take the bite of the failure.

If we want to revise the “truth in sentencing” law, we must havemore assurances that those released have adequate screening toprotect the general public.

In light of the heavy burden the prison system has placed on thetax structure, it is understandable to look for solutions. We needa more comprehensive review of what is defined as non-violentcrimes or how first offenders are judged. This will be veryfar-reaching and difficult to accomplish.

Friday, House of Representatives, District 53.