Crime doesn’t pay; jobs do

By Forest Thigpen

Mississippi’s Legislature took a little-noticed but very important step this session in amending the law to make it easier for our residents to get jobs. With the vision of an independent group headed by Federal District Judge Keith Starrett, and the hard work of Rep. Andy Gipson and Sen. Sean Tindell, the Legislature addressed a number of provisions in the state criminal code that have, over  the years, prevented people from gaining or keeping jobs and prevented employers from hiring the people they need.

House Bill 1033 is a significant piece of legislation that helps individuals who have committed misdemeanors and other nonviolent crimes, as well as certain people leaving prison, reenter the workforce. The goal of HB 1033 is to remove barriers to employment that exist in the criminal code. Whenever possible, it’s in the best interest of Mississippi for those who are incarcerated to become law-abiding, productive, taxpaying members of the workforce. The bill accomplishes these goals with several provisions.

First, it encourages recently released offenders to pay off the fees and fines they owe to the state. It reduces our reliance on incarceration for those who are unable to pay fees and fines, while providing judges the ability to establish payment plans and punish those who willfully choose not to pay. The bill promotes work by ensuring that inmates have opportunities to work off their debts while incarcerated.

Second, it moves more eligible individuals back into the workforce. The bill provides the state’s Parole Board with additional discretion to grant parole to nonviolent offenders who are a low risk to public safety and good candidates for employment. The Parole Board, which is appointed by the governor, would maintain discretion about which individuals are good candidates, and monitor and supervise them as they return to the community. House Bill 1033 provides them additional tools to supervise individuals, with the goal of improving the quality of supervision and public safety. These provisions will also protect taxpayers by saving the state more than $20 million in incarceration costs, in addition to boosting tax revenue generated by increased employment.

Finally, the bill creates several avenues for research and reporting. All of the decisions about how to implement these reforms is guided by data and statistical evidence to support its effectiveness. This bill furthers those interests by gathering better information on sentencing and incarceration. This information will be vital to guide the state’s criminal justice policies going forward.

The Legislature supported this bill overwhelmingly, and it passed both the House and the Senate unanimously. Gipson deserves enormous credit for his authorship of the bill and his leadership on this issue. House Bill 1033 is a step forward for public safety, accountability in state spending, and data-driven policymaking for the state of Mississippi. We urge Gov. Bryant to sign HB 1033 so that Mississippi can continue to lead the way in criminal justice reform and increase employment in our state.