House approves bill to ease some criminal penalties

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi House members on Thursday overwhelmingly supported a plan to ease some penalties for those accused or convicted of crimes, as its sponsor again acknowledged the bill constitutes "baby steps."

House Bill 1352 seeks to divert mentally ill people away from criminal court, would stop suspending driver's licenses in some cases and allow people to wipe more crimes from their record. Republican Rep. Jason White of West, the bill's sponsor, acknowledged there were other things he would have liked to have seen in the bill. But he said he thought the version now moving forward was politically feasible in an election year in a traditionally tough-on-crime state.

"This is some good, common-sense criminal justice reform that will allow us to build on it," White said, "We can expand on it in sessions in the future."

The measure moves on for more debate in the Senate, where a bill that would have made much more sweeping changes to Mississippi's punishment and rehabilitation of criminals died earlier this week without a committee vote.

"It's a long way from being over," White said of reaching an agreement with senators. "We've got a lot of work to do with those folks."

Political leaders including Gov. Phil Bryant and House Speaker Philip Gunn are putting an emphasis on further changes to Mississippi's sentencing laws and how the state treats people leaving prison to make punishment less harsh and make people less likely to commit new crimes.

The measure seeks to use Mississippi's existing drug court system to begin providing ways for people to avoid long jail stays and criminal convictions for actions that may result from mental illness. The bill would begin calling the courts intervention courts and also divert military veterans who may have committed acts related to post-traumatic stress disorder to those courts.

The proposal also would bar the state from revoking someone's driver's license just because they didn't pay fines. The state would also no longer suspend someone's driver's license for a drug charge not related to operating a vehicle.

White's plan would widen the range of crimes that someone could have expunged from their records. Right now someone can wipe out only one felony, but both measures would allow someone to expunge a group of crimes committed together. For example, someone who crashes a car into property while drunk could seek to expunge both a DUI and a destruction of property charge. Someone who wrote multiple bad checks in one spree might be able to wipe all those charges out.

Occupational licensing boards would have to restore licenses three years after someone completed their sentence, but expungement wouldn't be available for five years. Someone can be on probation or parole for up to five years in Mississippi, so it's possible that expungement might not be available for 10 years after someone was convicted or released from prison. White said he would have liked a shorter timeframe, but it was the best he could do.

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