BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - A Mississippi legislator is explaining to more than 100 municipal court judges why the state decided to rethink the way it prosecutes and penalizes for some crimes. This week, a judges conference is being held in Biloxi. State leaders told the judges the new laws are intended to save money on incarceration costs by reducing the number of first time and non-violent offenders who are behind bars.
In municipal courtrooms across Mississippi, judges hand down verdicts. Judges say they realize how their decisions can greatly affect people's lives.
"As a judge you want to be able to help those who are trying to help themselves," said Gautier City Judge Jason Thornton. "It's not just about a punishment. Everybody thinks it's just a punishment thing, but it's not. It's about helping those who are trying to help themselves. "
State legislators said helping people is why Mississippi revised its DUI laws to allow first time offenders to get an interlock device rather than have their license suspended.
"With first time offenders, the offender has a choice of interlock or a drivers license suspension," said Rep. Kevin Horan, of Grenada. "Why that is important is that some people who have been unfortunate enough to be convicted of a DUI but have jobs and need to keep their jobs."
Horan told 125 municipal judges at the Mississippi Municipal Court Judges Seminar about changes in how they will deal with first and second time offenders for shoplifting and larceny. The value of the stolen property went from $500 to $1,000 to be considered a felony.
"Are you really wanting to incarcerate low rate offenders, first time offenders, or do you want to keep violent offenders off the street? We're wasting money on certain offenders that it would be better spent keeping those individuals in custody that need to be in custody," said Horan. "Those that need help or have an opportunity to get out and be productive members of society, let those individuals out and give them an opportunity to be productive citizens."
The lawmaker said the changes came out of work done by a state task force on how to save taxpayer's money on incarceration costs. The task force utilized a study done by consultants.
"There were a lot of low level, non-violent offenders that were causing the state a tremendous amount of money that could be better managed within the community on probation, and things of that nature, as opposed to being placed in custody and serving prison sentences," Horan said.
The Mississippi Municipal Court Judges Seminar continues through Friday. Officials said municipal court judges are required to go through 12 hours of training every year.
Gulfport City Judge Fant Walker said the seminar is a good chance to brainstorm.
"It's nice to speak with other judges and find out about other issues that occur in other courtrooms," said Walker. "It's good to put everyone's head together and find common ground and try to figure out good ways to tackle issues."
"It give us a chance to compare how our cities operate and how we operate our courts," said Thornton. "We really want to be on the same page and treat everybody the same all the way across the state."