Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:
The Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi, on public defenders
The justice system in Mississippi is partially broken, and lawmakers have long ignored the most obvious fix — a statewide public defender program.
Arguments for a statewide public defender program vary from protecting the rights of men and women who are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty to removing the heavy financial burden from rural counties who cannot afford to cover the high legal costs of indigent clients.
The argument against a public defender program, however, has always been the same: it costs too much. The truth, however, is that the cost of not having a statewide public defender program outpaces what it would cost to fund it. We have men and women sitting in prisons who cannot afford bond and certainly can't afford an attorney and who have not seen the inside of a courtroom as our judicial system prescribes.
Furthermore, for those who are not moved by our failing to uphold the idea of innocent until proven guilty, it's the taxpayers in these counties who are footing the bill to house, feed, clothe and medicate those people. It's a costly enterprise to leave someone locked up for no good reason — both financially and morally.
Under our current system, defendants are not assigned an attorney until an indictment is returned. However, if no indictment is returned, then no attorney is assigned. That defendant, therefore, remains housed in jail until they can post bond. District attorneys who believe they have a weak case but know they are dealing with an indigent defendant could theoretically use this loophole to jail someone for long periods of time without ever going to court.
However, under a public defender program, at least one attorney in each state would track the progress of defendants and would have the right to meet with them in prison and during the initial appearance phase of the process. Public defenders become immediate advocates for those people moving through the judicial system.
State lawmakers have been asked to address this serious flaw in our judicial many times, and so far they have ignored such calls. Mississippi remains one of only seven states — and the only state in the southeast — without a public defender program.
Perhaps lawmakers are afraid of being considered weak on crime; however, they were brave enough last year to pass a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that some felt was being soft on crime. They did the right thing then, and we urge them to do the right thing next session by creating a statewide public defender program that will fix this broken area of our judicial system.
The Greenwood (Mississippi) Commonwealth on early voting.
It's ironic that some of the children and grandchildren of people who risked their lives to register to vote in Mississippi and other Southern states don't take the trouble to go to the polls these days.
The percentage of registered voters who cast ballots back in the days of poll taxes and literacy tests — mechanisms that undeniably were used to try to suppress minority participation in elections — was much higher than it is now.
Of course it stands to reason that a restricted voter registration list will probably produce a higher percentage turnout. But it does seem that the easier a freedom or a right is to exercise, the less it is appreciated.
It's easy to register to vote these days, and there are virtually no restrictions on a registered voter casting a ballot, other than producing a photo ID.
Nevertheless, there's nothing wrong with making voting even easier and more convenient. In this regard, Mississippi should adopt a procedure for early voting in person at the courthouse.
Already senior citizens, as well as those of any age who can come up with a legitimate reason to be out of the county on election day, are allowed to vote early by absentee.
Letting people vote early for any reason, but only after showing ID, might reduce the shenanigans that occur with absentee ballots.
The Sun Herald, Gulfport, Mississippi, on Mississippi Department of Marine Resources
Jamie Miller still hears jokes about the bad old days at the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. "Everyone likes to make jokes," he says. "Can I get a boat ride? You're the director. Can you send a cooking team?"
Miller says the days of free rides and free lunches are over.
There's really nothing funny about conditions at the MDMR when Miller became its executive director nearly 18 months ago.
Gov. Phil Bryant sent Miller to the DMR to rein in an out of control state agency.
The justice system eventually took care of the wrongdoers. But it was Miller's job to put things right at the agency.
He said he has cleaned house in the office charged with financial management.
"We don't have a single person working in our finance office that was here when I got here," he said. "We have high expectations for our finance and administrative office and we have focused a lot of attention on making sure we have very competent personnel there. There's several triggers in the system that are checkpoints to make sure we're all confident not only in the amount of money we're spending but in the reason we're spending. And it doesn't matter what program it is."
He also has established an ethics hotline on which complaints and allegations can be made to a company that is independent of the MDMR.
He has been able to reassign and terminate employees at will because of a law that went into effect in April that exempts the agency from State Personnel Board oversight.
The law also made other changes in the agency, including requiring it to have a chief financial officer, chief scientific officer and chief of marine patrol.
And at long last, the Legislature now requires an annual audit of the DMR, something it had not had for 10 years under the previous director.
Miller is confident he has steered the DMR in the right direction. It appears he has.