Mississippi Catholic advocates win victories in legislative session
Catholic News Service
JACKSON, Miss. — Catholic advocates scored a few victories in Mississippi's 2014 legislative session, including passage of the criminal justice reform bill and a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Other issues, such as Medicaid expansion, again languished.
The criminal justice reform bill was signed into law April 1 by Gov. Phil Bryant and will go into effect July 1. The bill includes the opportunity for addicts to go to drug courts and get treatment instead of just serving jail time. It provides new guidelines on the minimum amount of time served and offers other options to prevent jailing people with probation violations.
The bill saw many revisions during the legislative process, but advocates are pleased with the start of what they hope will be more comprehensive reforms to come.
Andre de Gruy, a member of the Criminal Justice Task Force that wrote the bill said it will "lead to tremendous improvement in the criminal justice system but it is just a beginning." For example, the law will significantly expand eligibility for drug courts but the funding for the expansion has not been provided.
He said another area that will need significant improvements is re-entry programs for those who have finished their jail terms.
At Catholic Day at the Capitol, an advocacy day in mid-February sponsored by the Mississippi dioceses of Biloxi and Jackson and Catholic Charities of Jackson, speakers explained that Mississippi has the nation's second highest rate of incarceration, but there is no proof this practice lowers crime rates or recidivism.
De Gruy said many of the bill's reforms lined up with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' 2000 statement "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective," calling for restorative justice that seeks to recognize that "the dignity of the human person applies to both victim and offender."
He said the task force looked at research-based alternatives to just putting people in jail with hopes of bringing restorative justice into the system. Restorative justice seeks to heal communities and not just punish offenders.
The other victory for Catholic advocates in the state's 2014 legislative session was a bill that bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless a woman's life is in danger, the pregnancy will permanently injure her or if the baby has an abnormality which would make it unable to survive.
This legislation brings Mississippi in line with most other states in the Southeast that have similar bans such as Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. Some of those bans are being challenged.
There is only one abortion clinic in Mississippi and the owner of the Jackson-based clinic told The Associated Press it does not provide abortions after 16 weeks of pregnancy so it would not be affected by the ban. That clinic is already involved in a court battle challenging a 2012 law that requires all doctors practicing there to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.
The bill to ban late-term abortions is awaiting the governor's signature and should take effect July 1.