District 38 candidates, from left, Cheikh Taylor, Narissa Bradford and Lisa Wynn sit during a Thursday public forum at Mississippi State University. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
October 20, 2017 12:09:10 PM
Three candidates running to represent District 38 in the Mississippi House of Representatives shared hopes for criminal justice reform during a Thursday evening forum at Mississippi State University.
This included former Starkville Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn saying wrongly that prison sentences for selling cocaine are longer than prison sentences for breaking into a residence and committing murder.
"If you sell crack, you could probably end up with 30 years in prison," she said. "But if you were to go to someone's home and break in and murder them, in probably five to 10 years, you could be out. That tells me that something is wrong here in our state."
Breaking into a home and committing murder is considered capital murder in Mississippi, and those convicted of it get life in prison without parole or the death penalty.
The penalties for selling cocaine depend on the amount of drugs sold.
Wynn's statement was part of her platform that drug sentences are too long. Her opponents -- Starkville residents Narissa Bradford and Cheikh Taylor -- also talked about criminal justice reform, touching on everything from drug sentences to the cost of bonding out of jail in the forum, which MSU student organization Stennis Montgomery Association partnered with the university's Stennis Institute of Government to put together.
The candidates are vying to replace former Rep. Tyrone Ellis, who represented the district nearly 40 years. Ellis, a 71-year-old Democrat from Starkville, announced his retirement at the end of June.
His three would-be replacements took the forum as an opportunity to express their campaign platforms before the Nov. 7 election.
"I go to the courtroom, and I sit in on these cases and I watch," Bradford said. "A lot of these kids, they're not educated and they don't understand anything about criminal justice. They don't understand anything about law. A lot of these kids are arrested, they have high bonds, they don't have money to pay the high bonds and therefore, they sit in jail.
"When they get out, if they get out, they're just as undereducated as when they went in," she added.
Bradford is a former fashion model-turned-entrepreneur, media executive and activist. Taylor is the executive director of the Brickfire Project, a child-centered organization that includes a day care and after-school programs. Wynn served as Starkville's Ward 2 Alderman from 2013-17, before Sandra Sistrunk unseated her in June's municipal election.
Bradford said she hoped to help create mandatory rehabilitation programs on a state level for people who are arrested. Those programs would focus on life skills, business etiquette and other areas.
"The goal of my mandatory rehabilitation and education programs is to create a more well-rounded person capable of going out into the world and being a productive member of society, and not returning to life of crime because it's their only option," she said.
Taylor said he wants to stop the "revolving door" of recidivism, where inmates get out of prison then wind up back in it.
He said he also supports efforts similar to a bill introduced by U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calinfornia) to reform the cash bail system.
"Most people sit in the jail because they don't have money," Taylor said. "Not having money should not be part of the justice system because Lady Justice should be blind. But that's not going to happen until we reform bills and make sure when we go there, money is not the issue."
Taylor later said he supports, and actively works to help with, expunging criminal charges from peoples' records after they are out of jail and have paid their fines.
Candidates also touched on ideas for infrastructure improvements during the forum.
Taylor cited the American Society of Civil Engineer's 2017 report on the state's infrastructure to highlight concerns.
"Twelve point three percent of our bridges are actually rated as failing," he said. "Drinking water needs in Mississippi are estimated at $8.5 billion and wastewater needs total at about $2 billion.
"Delaying any of these investments only escalates the costs and risks of an aging infrastructure," he added.
Wynn suggested the state should develop a comprehensive plan to tackle its infrastructure issues. She suggested infrastructure be split up regionally across the state, and the state could seek grants to help fund the projects. Legislators should also consider taxing online sales, she said.
"I say pass legislation so that we could get taxes off of those things we purchase online," she said. "That's one way I'm prepared to fund this problem."
Bradford said expanding internet access is one of her key infrastructure goals. She said she views it as a basic utility such as running water or electricity.
"I would like to see telecommunication companies bridge that gap," she said. "If the kids that live in these rural areas do not have the technology, it is hard for them to explore topics and ideas that interest them personally and these kids are not able to dream. As we know, without dreams and vision, we perish."
District 38 includes portions of Clay, Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties.
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