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Bill to amend state’s three-strikes rules passes House

Updated: Feb. 10, 2021 at 4:22 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A bill that would significantly amend the state’s habitual offender laws has made it through the state House of Representatives.

On Thursday, the House approved H.B. 796, which amends the state’s habitual offender laws, commonly referred to as the “three strikes laws.”

The bill will now go to the Senate, where it will be referred to a committee for further review.

A similar bill introduced by District 5 Sen. Daniel Sparks, but died in the Judiciary B Committee.

Sparks said Senate leadership likely killed his bill to take up the measure from the House.

“I’m good working with the House or the Senate bill, as long as we get a good bill,” he said.

If passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, the legislation would mean that felony crimes committed 15 years prior to a person’s new offense could not be counted toward their third strike.

Currently, the three-strikes rules mandate that all felony convictions be counted toward a person’s strike total, regardless of the time that has elapsed between convictions.

Approximately 80 prisoners are currently serving life in prison in Mississippi under the statute.

Among them is James Vardaman, who is 15 years into two life sentences after being convicted of his third and fourth strikes in 2004: having a precursor - an ingredient needed to cook methamphetamine, and conspiracy to cook meth, according to Empower Mississippi.

Authorities found him with seven empty Sudafed boxes, a story from Empower states.

Previously, Vardaman had served 51 months for possession of meth and for simple assault of a police officer.

Because of the assault conviction, state law mandated that he be sentenced to life.

“Universally we agree that the law is a little harsh,” Sparks said. “It’s a lot harsh.”

Basically, habitual offender laws provide for two types of offenses: non-violent and violent felony crimes.

If individuals are convicted of non-violent felonies on three separate occasions, on the third occasion, they must serve the maximum sentence allowed under law, day-per-day with no eligibility for parole.

For individuals who have at least one non-violent felony conviction, on the third felony conviction, the mandated sentence is life without parole.

Further, the length of time between convictions doesn’t matter, meaning that a 50-year-old could be held accountable for a crime he or she committed in their 20s.

“The biggest problem we have is that if your current triggering crime is non-violent, but you had an aggravated assault in your past, it could get you life in prison,” he said. “If you’re going to get life, day-for-day, then your current crime should be a crime of violence.”

H.B. 796 was authored by District 2 Rep. Nick Bain. Bain couldn’t be reached for comment.

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