Over my 20 years in law enforcement, I’ve come to realize that Mississippi has an incarceration crisis. But this crisis is one of our own making. It’s not the result of increased drug use or rising crime, but rather changes in our laws that have resulted in more people going to prison for longer and longer.
Since I first put my police uniform on in 1995, Mississippi’s prison population has more than doubled and corrections spending has more than tripled. The increases stem directly from a set of laws that allow prosecutors and judges to add years, decades, or even life imprisonment to already long prison sentences if the person has been convicted of crimes in the past.
These “habitual penalties” were passed into law during the rush to adopt increasingly tough sentences during the 1980s and 1990s, but we now know that long sentences produce few public safety benefits at great cost to taxpayers and communities. Shocking new data from FWD.us shows there are more than 2,600 people in our prisons with one of these extreme sentences and they are being applied to even the most minor crimes including shoplifting and simple drug possession.
In fact, people convicted of drug offenses are receiving some of the most harmful sentences. Sentence lengths for drug crimes are already higher than in most other states and one in five people in prison is incarcerated for a drug offense – far above the national average. While drug possession isn’t even a felony in some states, a person can be sentenced up to 20 years in prison on their first offense in Mississippi.
This is a major problem in its own right, but for people struggling with drug abuse or addiction, continued involvement with the criminal justice system can result in a life sentence. On top of Mississippi’s already long sentences, more than 150 people in prison have a sentence of 20 years or longer for a drug crime because of the habitual penalty and over half of this group received a sentence that was 50 years or longer. Since Mississippi’s habitual laws take the extra punitive step of denying any opportunity for parole, most of these people will spend the rest of their life behind bars.
Most of us know someone who is struggling with addiction, and very few believe that they should be sentenced to die in prison for stealing or selling drugs to support their habit. Unfortunately, this is happening far more often than we previously realized in Mississippi. Long prison sentences are not a deterrent, and study after study has shown that treatment works better than incarceration.
According to research, states with higher rates of imprisonment for drug offenses do not have lower rates of drug use, overdose deaths, or arrests for drug-related crimes. Even short periods of incarceration can be destabilizing and traumatic for families, and the consequences are magnified the longer a person is incarcerated. I’ve witnessed this vicious cycle time and time again, and seen firsthand that tearing people away from their families does very little other than create new victims.
Not surprisingly, communities of color pay the highest price for these extreme sentences. Despite making up only 13 percent of the state population, more than 75 percent of the people with a habitual sentence of 20 years or longer is a black man. This disparity speaks volumes about the fundamental unfairness of the habitual laws and how they are being applied across the state.
We don’t need excessively long prison sentences to reduce crime or drug use. To the contrary, the laws that allow those sentences to happen are causing more harm than good. Crime is at historic lows in Mississippi but we continue to lock up more and more people for longer and longer terms. Despite having an imprisonment rate 57 percent higher than other states, crime is falling much slower in Mississippi than the rest of the country. While our crime rate declined 5 percent over the past decade, it fell at least three times as much in Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, and Florida.
It’s time to get serious about reducing the prison population and investing in public safety strategies that actually work to reduce crime. Eliminating habitual penalties from our criminal code is a good first step.