Prison system policy failed our community

Published 9:30 am Thursday, July 30, 2015

Bad policy by the Mississippi Department of Corrections has failed Warren County and it’s residents.

On Wednesday, I sat in the courtroom just feet from Bennet Armstead, a 33-year-old Vicksburg man accused of six felonies including molesting a girl at gunpoint. Armstead, of course, is given the presumption of innocence unless his guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt at trial or he pleads guilty.

Whether Armstead is indeed the perpetrator of this awful attack is for a jury to decide, but I can tell you without a doubt that I shouldn’t have been in the courtroom Wednesday.

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Why? Because Armstead should still be in prison.

On June 15, 2011, Armstead pleaded guilty to three counts of burglary, and was found guilty of violating probation for a prior felony offense.

Circuit Judge Isadore Patrick sentenced him to 15 years to serve in the state’s prison system. He was released on parole Dec. 17, 2014.

If Armstead had served just half of his sentence, he wouldn’t be out of prison for another two and a half years.

But just over four years later, here I was spending my Wednesday morning watching Warren County Judge Johnny Price deny bail for a multiple-convicted felon.

“This is something we as prosecutors have been fighting against,” District Attorney Ricky Smith said during the hearing.

Price seemed like he couldn’t believe it when Smith first announced Armstead had been sentenced to 15 years in 2011.

“That’s 15 years?” Price asked in disbelief, latter adding “That’s disgraceful.”

The stepfather of the girl Armstead is accused of molesting expressed similar sentiments, though most of them are not fit for print.

At least the state has already done something to keep people like Armstead off the streets for longer.

In July 2014, a new state law made burglary a violent offense and requires convicted burglars to spend at least 50 percent of their sentence in prison before they are eligible for release.

“That’s one of the things the prosecutor’s association pushed for,” Smith told me after the hearing. “That was one of the main things we wanted to get changed.”

It’s a good law, but I know at least one family in Warren County that thinks the change came too late.