Proposed Legislation

MAMM’s Proposed Legislation

MAMM’s Plan to Restore Efficiency and Justice to Mississippi’s Criminal Justice System

In order to make real change in Mississippi’s criminal justice system, MAMM has four major goals for state legislation.

1) Repeal Mandatory Minimums for non-violent drug-related offenses

2) Create Mississippi Sentencing Commission

3)  Institute Safety Valves for All Other Mandatory Minimum Offenses

4) Increase, Further Subsidize, and Expand Reach of Drug Courts

_________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Reality of Mississippi’s Current Criminal Justice System

 

Mississippi’s Criminal Justice System Costs are Enormous and Unsustainable

Between 1989 and 1998, Mississippi built 16 new correctional facilities to house its growing imprisoned population, which has increased from 8000 to 21,000 inmates between 1990 and 2007.[1] As of July 2012, the state’s prison population had grown to over 22,000 inmates.[2] To put this in perspective, while our state spends between $15,000 and $38,000 per inmate, we spend on average $4,774 annually per student in our public school system.[3] This year, the Mississippi Department of Corrections faces a $30 million deficit and will spend more than $339 million in fiscal year 2013. State spending on corrections is projected to increase to $368 million in 2014.[4]

Growing numbers of Low-Level Non-Violent Offenders are Serving Excessive Sentences in Mississippi

Since the enactment of strict mandatory minimum sentences in the mid-1980s, Mississippi has seen a dramatic ballooning of the state prison population. Since 1988, the number of inmates in our prisons has more than tripled.[5] While the national growth rate in the imprisoned population between 1988 and 2008 was 133 percent, Mississippi’s growth was a staggering 208 percent.[6] In a country with five percent of the world’s population and twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners, Mississippi has the second highest per capita incarceration rate of any state in the nation.[7]

About two-thirds of Mississippi’s prisoners were incarcerated for non-violent property and drug offenses. Our state jails a much higher percentage of people for drug offenses – 36 percent – than other states, which incarcerate on average 20 percent.[8] Furthermore, the sentences for these crimes are much harsher than elsewhere in the country. While the average state prison sentence for drug sales in the U.S. is 5.7 years, the average sentence in Mississippi is 10.4 years.[9] Similarly, while the average sentence for drug possession in the U.S. is 4.5 years, it is 7.2 years in Mississippi.[10]

Our state’s mandatory sentencing regime was originally implemented in part to decrease sentencing disparities across the state; however, today we incarcerate black Mississippians at a rate three times that of white offenders, even though both groups use drugs at almost identical rates.[11]

State-wide Underinvestment in Rehabilitation, Alternatives to Prison, and Re-Entry Programs

While Mississippi spends between $15,000 and $38,000 annually per inmate, we are systematically under-investing in programs that aid at-risk youth, rehabilitate and educate offenders, provide alternatives to prison, and aid offenders in reentering society.[12]

Growing evidence shows that our state could receive much higher rates of return on investment with alternative-to-prison programs, including drug treatment and rehabilitation programs. According to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, for every dollar spent on drug treatment alternatives to prison, society receives $18.52 in returns.[13] According to the University of California’s cost analysis of Proposition 36, the state’s treatment-over-incarceration law, California saved at least $2.50 for every one dollar spent on the treatment alternative to prison, $4 for every person who completed treatment, and $173.3 million in total savings during the program’s first year.[14] Finally, a 1997 RAND analysis estimated that drug treatment can reduce the occurrence of drug-related offenses up to 15 times more effectively than mandatory minimum sentencing regimes.[15]

 

Mississippi’s Current Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws

Currently, Mississippi enforces mandatory minimum sentences for drug, weapons, habitual, and gang offenses as well as for certain levels of public embezzlement.[16] Because the list of mandatory sentences is lengthy, we will simply describe some of the more egregious aspects of the regime here. (The full list of Mississippi’s mandatory minimum sentencing requirements can be found here: http://www.famm.org/Repository/Files/Select%20Mississippi%20Mandatory%20Minimum%20Laws%207.21.10.pdf).

One-Size-Fits-All 

Mississippi’s one-size-fits-all mandatory sentences are excessive and very often disproportionate to the severity of the crime committed. In terms of drug offenses, the state relies excessively on the weight of the drugs sold by or in the possession of the offender, rather than the specifics of each case, including the motive held or role played by the offender in the crime.

Targeting the Minnows, Rather than the Sharks

Furthermore, while put in place to target high-level offenders, including drug lords and king pins, Mississippi’s mandatory sentences largely target low-level, non-violent offenders. Mississippi is one of nine states in the country in which more than half of incarcerated drug offenders were convicted of simple possession.[17]

 Targeting of Urban Criminals

Enhanced mandatory minimums tend to disproportionately target residents of urban areas. Harsher sentences are required for drug sales within 1,500 feet of a school, church, public park, ballpark, public gym, youth center, or movie theater. Thus, it is almost impossible for those who commit their offense in urban areas to avoid these enhanced zones. Meeting the above condition may increase a sentence to up to 60 years.[18] For habitual offenders with two distinct prior convictions, it is required that the maximum sentence be given for the crime committed, even if the prior offenses involved nothing more than simple possession of drugs.

Racial Bias    

Lastly, mandatory minimums disproportionately affect minority Mississippians. African Americans comprise 37 percent of Mississippi’s population, but make up 68 percent of our state’s prisoners. At the same time, white prisoners only make up 31 percent of the inmate population, although 60 percent of Mississippians are white.[19]

MAMM’s Proposed Legislation

1) Repeal Mandatory Minimums for non-violent drug-related offenses

Because mandatory minimum requirements for non-violent, drug-related offenses all too often result in excessive and disparate sentences, MAMM recommends that Mississippi lawmakers repeal all mandatory minimum sentences for these crimes. The sentencing regime should be replaced with sentencing commission guidelines that provide judges with reasonable structure in determining appropriate sentences, but allow them sufficient discretion in applying them. Furthermore, MAMM recommends that Mississippi abolish life sentences without the possibility of parole for any non-violent crime.

 

2) Create Mississippi Sentencing Commission

In order to make sure sentences across the state of Mississippi are delivered in a fair and consistent manner, the state must establish a Sentencing Commission. The Commission will be responsible for crafting statewide sentencing guidelines that will provide judges with a helpful structure in determining appropriate, individualized sentences.

3) Institute Safety Valves for All Other Mandatory Minimum Offenses

MAMM recommends that Mississippi lawmakers institute safety valves for all remaining mandatory minimum sentences, including those for habitual, gang, and weapons offenders. These safety valves would allow judges to sentence an offender to a prison time shorter than the otherwise-required mandatory minimum, if the judge believes the mandatory sentence is excessive, unreasonable, or inappropriate. Thus, judges would be given much-needed discretion in determining sentences, allowing them to take into account the unique facts of every individual case. While the threat of a maximum sentence remains, as it may certainly be enforced, judges are able to assign what they deem to be the most appropriate punishment.

The benefits of safety valves for all mandatory minimums:

-       Give courts and judges discretion and flexibility in providing case-appropriate punishment. Safety valves would restore judges’ ability to use their discretion and judgment in determining each individual sentence.

-       Protect public safety. Safety valves cut back on the number of offenders given prison-time and the length of the sentences given, thus reserving space in our jails for criminals who pose a danger to society.

-       Save Mississippi taxpayers money. The less time Mississippians spend in our state prisons, and the more treatment and rehabilitation they receive, the greater their potential to give back to our communities. Furthermore, the costs imposed by our state’s criminal justice system would be significantly reduced by the redirection of nonviolent and low-level drug offenders to the Drug Court system.

 

4) Increase, Further Subsidize, and Expand Reach of Drug Courts

Currently, Mississippi has a system of Drug Courts available throughout the majority of the state’s jurisdictions. The Drug Courts are tasked with rehabilitating nonviolent drug offenders by providing treatment for drug addiction, the problem considered to be at the root of drug-driven crime.[20] This relatively recent invention in Mississippi (the first court was established in 1999) was created in reaction to enormous increases in social and economic costs associated with the growing incarceration of nonviolent, low-level drug offenders. The Drug Courts have been very successful in reducing statewide costs and rates of drug use and recidivism.

State Savings

As a result of the Drug Courts, savings in state and federal spending on Mississippi’s criminal justice system have been enormous. In 2011, $32 million was saved in state incarceration costs, and $54 million saved in health care costs.[21] It is estimated that for every dollar invested in Drug Courts, taxpayers save about $12 in avoided criminal justice and health care costs.[22] While the average cost of incarcerating an individual in Mississippi was about $15,000 in 2010, it cost less than $2,000 per year to supervise an offender through the Drug Court program.[23]

Impact on Mississippi’s Families and Communities

The total effects of providing Mississippians – particularly youths and parents – with treatment alternatives to prison are incalculable. Helping a parent cure an addiction, gain employment, and support her children makes an immeasurable impact in the lives of children, families, and communities across our state. Facilitating the drug-free birth of hundreds of babies in Mississippi, our Drug Court system works not only for the futures of our offenders, but for the future of our state. Between 2004 and 2011, 4,500 Mississippians were enrolled in Drug Courts.[24] These represent thousands of individuals, families, and communities who have been served by a system that works to improve rather than imprison offenders.

Excessive Limitations on Eligibility

However, Mississippi’s Drug Courts have very strict, and MAMM believes excessive, limitations on the types of offenders that are accepted into the system. In particular, MAMM believes that the system’s restrictions on the eligibility of nonviolent, low-level drug crimes are excessive. In order to be eligible for alternative sentencing through the Mississippi Drug Court system, the crime charged may not be one including distribution, sale, possession with intent to distribute, production, manufacture, or cultivation of controlled substances, nor can the defendant have had a prior conviction involving one of the above-listed offenses.[25]

These limitations make ineligible a significant portion of nonviolent, low-level offenders, including drug-addicted street dealers, who would be much more effectively served by rehabilitation, education, and treatment than by prison-time. Saddling fewer of these defendants with felony records and helping them find paths to productive lives is the least costly and most effective method we have of dealing with these types of crime. The expansion of Drug Court jurisdiction would further reduce the number of low-level offenders eating up public funds and wasting away in our state prisons. However, MAMM believes that the highest-level offenders, including drug lords, king pins, and large-scale drug manufacturers, should continue to be prosecuted in criminal courts. The determination of what constitutes a high-level versus a low-level drug-related crime will be left to the newly created Mississippi Sentencing Commission.

Expand Number of Drug Courts

Currently, fifteen of Mississippi’s eighty-two counties do not have Drug Courts. This means that offenders within those counties’ jurisdiction to not have access to adjudication and treatment through the non-traditional justice system. In order to ensure that every eligible Mississippian has equal access to Drug Courts, MAMM further recommends that Mississippi lawmakers increase the number of Drug Courts throughout the state.

Increase Funding

In order to accommodate this proposed expansion, MAMM recommends that lawmakers provide increased funding to sustain and expand current Drug Court programs. According to a 2011 report by the Mississippi Drug Court Advisory Committee, our system is already underfunded. The report concluded, “without additional funds, the sustainability of current and future Drug Courts is in jeopardy.”[26] With the proposed reduction in the number of state prisoners, MAMM recommends that the lawmakers redirect a portion of these savings to more generously fund the Drug Courts.


[1] Matthew W. Burris, “Mississippi and the School to Prison Pipeline,” Widener Journal of Law, Economics & Race (Vol. 3, 2011), http://blogs.law.widener.edu/wjler/files/2012/01/STPP_Burris.pdf, last accessed May 21, 2013.

[2] “Mississippi’s Incarceration Rate Continues to Climb, Straining Finances,” The Mississippi Press, January 10, 2013, http://blog.gulflive.com/mississippi-press-news/2013/01/mississippis_incarcaration_rat.html, last accessed May 21, 2013.

[3] Burris, pg 10.

[4] Barnes, Joe. “State’s growing prison population straining the budget.” MS News Now 18 Jan. 2013.

[5] Nicole D. Porter, “Incarceration Trends in Mississippi 1988-2008,” The Sentencing Project: Research and Advocacy Reform, http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/inc_MississippiTrends.pdf, last accessed May 13, 2013.

[6] Porter, pg 2.

[7] Sabol, William J., Heather C. West, and Matthew Cooper. “Prisoners in 2008.” U.S. Department of Justice 30 Jun. 2010.

[8] Porter, pg 2.

[9] Dolan, Eric W. “ACLU: Mississippi’s drug enforcement tactics amount to a ‘reign of terror.’” The Raw Story 28 Mar. 2011.

[10] Dolan, The Raw Story.

[11] Dolan, The Raw Story.

[12] Burris, pg 10.

[13] Judith Greene and Patricia Allard, “Numbers Game: The Vicious Cycle of Incarceration in Mississippi’s Criminal Justice System,” Justice Strategies and American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, March 2011, pg 17, http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/DLRP_MississipppiReport_sm.pdf, last accessed May 23, 2013.

[14] Greene and Allard, pg 17.

[15] Greene and Allard, pg 17.

[16] “Select Mississippi Mandatory Minimum Laws,” Families Against Mandatory Minimums, July 21, 2010, http://www.famm.org/Repository/Files/Select%20Mississippi%20Mandatory%20Minimum%20Laws%207.21.10.pdf, last accessed May 23, 2013.

[17] “The Impact of the War on Drugs on U.S. Incarceration,” Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/usa/Rcedrg00-03.htm, last accessed May 23, 2013.

[18] Greene and Allard, pg 18.

[19] Nicole D. Porter, “Incarceration Trends in Mississippi 1988-2008, The Sentencing Project: Research for Advocacy and Reform, http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/inc_MississippiTrends.pdf, last accessed May 23, 2013.

[20] “Progress Report on Mississippi Drug Courts,” Mississippi Drug Court Advisory Committee, February 2011, http://courts.ms.gov/reports/drug_courts2011.pdf, last accessed May 14, 2013.

[21] “Progress Report on Mississippi Drug Courts,” pg 1.

[22] “Progress Report on Mississippi Drug Courts,” pg 4.

[23] “Progress Report on Mississippi Drug Courts,” pg 1.

[24] “Progress Report on Mississippi Drug Courts,” pg 1.

[25] “Mississippi Drug Court Program,” The Guthrie Firm, PLLC, http://mississippicriminaldefenseblog.com/mississippi-drug-court-lawyer/, last accessed May 14, 2013.

[26] “Progress Report on Mississippi Drug Courts,” pg 1.

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