July 10, 2020 10:25:00 AM
When Gov. Tate Reeves gritted his teeth and signed into law a measure to change the Mississippi flag on June 30, he probably knew there would be hell to pay among his ultra-conservative base.
It may be the first time he's been right about anything since taking office.
Since signing the flag bill into law, he's been mercilessly trolled by flag supporters, who called him, among other things, a traitor and, gasp, a liberal.
He has apparently taken that criticism to heart, especially the scandalous accusation of being a liberal, for he's worked like a fiend to win back his flag-loving, face mask-hating base.
No where is there a better example than his decision to veto two criminal justice reform bills that had enjoyed broad bi-partisan support, measures that would have helped address serious issues in our under-funded, under-staffed, over-crowded, dangerous state prison system.
There are few things that Reeves' much-offended base appreciates more than this sort of "Tough on Crime" stand, a position that study after study shows does little to reduce crime but much to increase misery among our prison population.
HB 698 would have allowed prisoners to have felony convictions expunged from their records, improving their opportunities to return to the communities as employable, productive citizens.
SB 2213 would have made as many as 2,000 current inmates eligible for parole, which represents about 10 percent of the state's prison population.
Both bills are reasonable measures, as evidenced by the support received among both Republicans and Democrats in both chambers of the Legislature. HB 968 passed, 111-9, in the House and 50-1 in the Senate. SB 2213 passed, 73-35, in the House and 32-20 in the Senate.
With the exception of Rep. Dana McLean (R, Columbus), who voted against SB 2213, all members of the Golden Triangle delegation voted in favor of both measures.
As the vote clearly indicates neither measure was perceived as a "soft on crime" measure, at least not where the Legislature was concerned.
For Reeves, however, this was an opportunity to bolster his ultra-conservative bona fides.
We know this primarily by his explanation for his vetoes.
Apparently unable to make a rational argument for his veto, he turned to a tactic always employed by hyper-partisans: He mischaracterized both bills. In some cases, he outright lied.
Reeves said SB 2123 would have opened the door to people committed of crimes who could have been sentenced to the death penalty and have allowed inmates over age 60 release who have committed violent crimes or were sentenced as habitual offenders.
It's almost as if Reeves did not read the bill.
First, the bill only makes inmates eligible for parole. The inmates still have to go through the parole process, which is certain to eliminate the most egregious, dangerous offenders.
Second, the bill makes exceptions: Those convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes or are sentenced to life without parole or as habitual offenders are not eligible for parole under this bill. In short, Reeves lied.
It's much the same for HB 968, which allowed a process for expungement.
Reeves said the bill would result in "career criminals walking around with no records."
That, too, is wildly misleading.
First, the measure would not apply to anyone convicted of a violent crime, sex crime, arson, exploitation of a vulnerable person, embezzlement, felony possession of a firearm, voyeurism or drug trafficking. Those with more than three felony convictions would also be ineligible.
Clearly, this bill is not aimed at giving "dangerous criminals" a pass.
Both measures would have done much to improve our prison system and give people a real shot about returning to our community as productive citizens rather than a drain on our resources.
There is but one reason for these bills to be vetoed: Reeves is trying to rehabilitate his personal political standing with his base.
Hopefully, the legislature will override the vetoes. They have the votes -- and the moral responsibility -- to do just that.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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