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Bills to investigate officer misconduct and extend parole eligibility survive legislative deadline

The state’s officer training board moved a step closer in the Legislature on Tuesday to gaining the power to investigate law enforcement misconduct.

“I am pleased that House Bill 691 and Senate Bill 2286 were both passed out of their committees,” said Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell. “These bills call for all law enforcement officers to be required to have continuing education training and the Board of Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Training will have the authority to launch its own investigations.”

If the bill becomes law, Tindell anticipates the Mississippi Board on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Training would hire two or three investigators who would investigate matters and make recommendations. “Ultimately,” he said, “it’s going to be up to the board.”

The bill comes in the wake of an investigation by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today and The New York Times into sheriffs and deputies across the state over allegations of sexual abuse, torture and corruption.

For the first time, deputies, sheriffs and state law enforcement would join police officers in the requirement to have up to 24 hours of continuing education training. Those who fail to train could lose their certifications.

Other changes would take place as well. Each year, the licensing board would have to report on its activities to the Legislature and the governor. 

The board’s makeup would be changed to include the public safety commissioner and the director of the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers’ Training Academy.

House Bill 1454 and House Bill 755 would extend the repealer on parole eligibility for another two years. Senate Bill 2448 would delete the repealer in the current law and keep parole eligibility on the books. 

“We are encouraged to see Mississippi lawmakers advance critical legislation to continue parole eligibility and keep reducing our state’s highest-in-the-nation imprisonment rate safely,” Alesha Judkins, state director of criminal justice group FWD.us, said in a Tuesday statement. 

“This session, we urge Mississippi’s elected leaders to ensure that our current parole law is reauthorized without a repealer and advance the real public safety solutions our state deserves.”

House Bill 844 was the only parole-related bill to survive the legislative session after being approved by the Corrections Committee.  

The legislation would require the Parole Board to solicit recommendations from members of the criminal justice system, including the original judge and prosecutor in the case and the attorney general’s office, when a person applies for parole. 

Before a hearing, notification would need to be sent to the original prosecuting attorney and judge and the police chief and sheriff of the municipality and county where the conviction happened. 

Bills aimed to keep parole eligibility reforms passed through both chambers’ Judiciary B committees.

A pair of bills, Senate Bill 2022 and House Bill 1440 would allow alternative sentencing and the possibility of parole for those who were under the age of 18 when they committed an offense. 

According to a 2020 report by the Office of the State Defender, 87 people in Mississippi were sentenced to an automatic life without parole sentence for crimes committed while they were under the age of 18, a practice found unconstitutional by several U.S. Supreme Court cases. 

In the absence of legislative guidance, there aren’t procedures in place to review and resentence juvenile life without parole defendants, the report states. 

Bills that died

  • HB 1540, which sought to punish law enforcement officers who sexually abuse those detained or on supervised release, failed to make it out of the Judiciary B Committee. Under Mississippi law, it is a crime for officers to have sex with those behind bars, but the law does nothing to prohibit officers from sexually exploiting those they arrest or detain. The bill sought to close that loophole, said the sponsor, state Rep. Dana McLean, R-Columbus. “Someone in a position of trust should be held to a higher standard.”
  • HB 1536 would have made it a felony for therapists, clergy and doctors to have sexual contact with those they treat, but the measure never made it out of the Judiciary B Committee. Mississippi Today reported that two women have told Hattiesburg police that counselor Wade Wicht sexually abused them during counseling sessions, but he may never face criminal charges because it’s not against the law in Mississippi for counselors to have sexual contact with their clients. Wicht has already admitted to having sex with two women he counseled, a violation of the ethical code that prompted the loss of his license before the State Board of Examiners for Licensed Professional Counselors, which oversees and licenses counselors.
  • Senate Bill 2353 proposed winding down the use of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman over four years by sending incarcerated people, staff and programs to other prison facilities in the state. The bill was approved by the Correction Committee, which Barnett chairs, late last week and needed approval from the Appropriations Committee. It was never brought up. A major part of the bill was the purchase of the Tallahatchie Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, which is owned and operated by CoreCivic. 
  • Two bills that proposed dissolving the current five-member Parole Board and reappointing them with those with certain experience, such as law enforcement or law, died in committee: House Bill 114 and Senate Bill 2352. The Senate bill also called for parole hearings to be broadcast live on the Department of Corrections website and open to the public. Information about upcoming hearings for violent offenders, parole and revocation outcomes and guidance documents the Parole Board uses would have also been required to be posted online. 
  • House Bill 828 would have created a public database of law enforcement misconduct incidents. 
  • House Bill 842 would have formed a domestic violence fatality review team within the State Medical Examiner’s office.

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