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Bryant preserved public safety with veto of HB1033

Gov. Phil Bryant preserved public safety when he vetoed House Bill 1033.

The legislation may have been well-intended, but language inserted toward the very end of its trip through the Capitol turned its pragmatic effect into one that would have endangered communities.

One of the more problematic provisions in the final version of the bill would have allowed career criminals to be eligible for parole after serving only 25 percent of their sentence.

We understand the legislative process is long and often complicated and we do not believe this was the intention of the legislation at its inception. The chairmen who crafted the legislation and handled it during conference have already said that was not what they intended to accomplish.

An effective criminal justice reform re-entry program is dependent on allocating funding and providing resources to assist convicts with their return to society after completion of their sentence. No reasonable person would argue against helping those re-entering society become productive citizens and giving them every opportunity to avoid incarceration once they are released.

Other states have shown that with proper mechanisms and sufficient funding to support those mechanisms, re-entry programs can be successful in reducing recidivism. Indeed, everyone wins when an offender fulfills their obligation and never re-enters the criminal justice system upon exiting.

That said, what should not be the goal of the criminal justice system is releasing habitual offenders on parole who have served only 25 percent of their sentences.

Mississippi’s habitual offender statutes exist for a very important reason. They are designed to protect communities from those who have demonstrated a repetitive pattern of conduct by their unwillingness to obey the law and a willingness to prey upon their fellow citizens. Simply put, they have repeatedly proven themselves a threat, often, a dangerous threat, to law-abiding citizens and to law enforcement.

Just to name a few, allowing habitual drunk drivers, drug dealers and career thieves to be released after serving such a small portion of their sentence would have drastic effects on the public safety of neighborhoods, small businesses and the people of Mississippi. The cost of incarceration cannot be measured against the cost to law-abiding citizens who are victimized again and again by repeat offenders.

Like Gov. Bryant said in his veto message, Mississippians deserve to be kept safe in their person and property. One of the first functions of government is public safety. House Bill 1033 in its final form would have undermined law enforcement’s efforts to provide our citizens with a safe environment in which to live. The governor’s veto was not an act against fair criminal justice reform.

The law enforcement community supports effective, smart and safe re-entry proposals. Our hope is that next year, when considering passage of similar legislation, law enforcement concerns will be considered, including a healthy dialogue regarding protecting public safety and keeping dangerous repeat offenders away from law-abiding citizens.

We should always look for ways to improve our system of justice and provide offenders with the resources to succeed once they are released from serving their sentence. Those are goals to which we should all aspire.

However, Gov. Bryant should be commended for courageously recognizing that reform should not include endangering the taxpayers whose hard-earned money funds the system, which is meant to keep them safe.

Joel Smith is the grandson of Virgil Smith, who was the former owner of Brookhaven Funeral Home. He is also the District Attorney for the Second District covering Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties. Readers can contact him at jsmithjr@co.harrison.ms.us.