Mississippi is paroling fewer inmates now than it did before expanding parole eligibility in 2021. The state Parole Board chairman told lawmakers Tuesday the board is more closely examining inmates’ prison records.
Jeffrey Belk told a legislative committee the board is not seeking to release a particular percentage of applicants, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported.
"We do pay attention to the numbers, and they’re important," Belk told the newspaper. "But we don’t let that drive our decisions."
Senate Corrections Vice Chairman Daniel Sparks, a Republican from Belmont, told Belk he was concerned about the decreased parole rate because the prison population could increase over time.
Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S. and the Department of Justice has described the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman as unsafe because of low staffing levels.
Criminal justice advocates have criticized the new Parole Board for the decreasing parole rate.
Belk became chairman in January. He said Tuesday that previous Parole Board members were not reviewing cases thoroughly.
"If you’ve got a high parole rate and you don’t have parole members present, there’s no way you can be fully looking at and vetting each case that comes before you," Belk said.
He referenced a report from PEER, a legislative watchdog committee, which found that during one work week in 2020, all five members of the board were never fully in attendance or at the office for parole hearings. The board at the time objected to PEER’s findings, arguing that board members work full time, often until 6:30 p.m.
Belk said roughly 40% of the eligible inmates who come before the board now are granted parole.
Mississippi law requires people convicted of nonviolent crimes and nonhabitual drug offenses to serve either 25% of their sentence or 10 years before becoming parole eligible.
People convicted of a violent crime must serve half the sentence or 20 years, and those convicted of robbery with a deadly weapon must serve 60% or 25 years.
Belk said he wants to streamline the process through presumptive parole. State law allows qualifying offenders to be granted parole without a hearing, provided criteria are met.
Prison staff develop a plan for inmates to complete before release. The plan includes education and job training. If prisoners complete the plan, have no violations on their prison record in the last six months and local law enforcement does not object to presumptive parole, then the board can allow release without a hearing.
The process would still allow the board to review cases but would reduce the number of hearings.
PEER’s 2021 report noted presumptive parole had largely been ignored.