Mandatory sentences keep many addicts in prison

By WYATT EMMERICH,

When the Crack cocaine epidemic hit the nation and Jackson in the early 1990s, it was a shock to our society. Gangs increased. Property crimes increased. Addiction increased. Violent crimes increased. The attitude was lock ‘em up, and I was among those leading the charge.

Thirty years later, with our prisons bulging, incarceration costs skyrocketing and new research accumulating, the nation’s attitude has done an about face. Like anything else, with better communication, better technology, time and studies have furthered our understanding of what works and doesn’t work. Progress is being made but it’s slow in implementation.

One byproduct of the tech boom is a class of uber rich tech billionaires who have enough money to fund efforts to improve our nation through education and political activism. Not everybody is going to agree on all the causes and solutions, but there can be no doubt these uber billionaires have the resources to raise awareness and move the needle of public opinion.

The group fighting for criminal justice reform is called Fwd.us. With 64 full-time bright energetic young people based in Washington fighting single-mindedly for their cause, things can change, especially when Mississippi, along with Arizona, Oklahoma and New York, are the four focus states for reform.

Just last month Oklahoma, perhaps the most conservative state in the nation, released 430 inmates convicted of drug crimes. This was the result of Oklahoma House Bill 1269, which limits prison time for many low-level and nonviolent drug and property offenses. The bill came after a public ballot initiative was approved by 56 percent of Oklahoma voters three years ago to change the punishment for these types of crimes.

The initiative also required the state to estimate the money saved by lower incarceration costs and use that money to fund rehabilitation and mental health services. These are big changes.

Now fwd.us is focusing on Mississippi. A new report provides details on how drug use incarcerates addicts for decades at a time, costing the state an exorbitant amount of money.

This is where politics makes strange bedfellows. Our Republican state leadership is focused on cutting state expenditures as a top priority. The Department of Corrections, with a budget around $400 million, is one of the most expensive agencies. Our  Republican leadership may be anti-crime, but they are even more anti-tax increase.

It would be one thing if our Department of Corrections lived up to its name and was a model of rehabilitation, education, therapy and training. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our prisons are dominated by criminal gangs where you are more likely to get raped and beaten than learn a skill.

Now just imagine putting someone mentally ill or addicted to drugs in this situation. It is inhumane, expensive and will do nothing to improve our state. That’s what fwd.us is trying to make us understand. Whether they are right remains to be seen, but our current situation is certainly not working.

The idea of prison is to provide a disincentive to break laws. But that assumes some level of rational decision making. Addicts are far beyond that. They need treatment. They are incapable of rational decision making.

Fwd.us latest report shows how habitual offender laws are incarcerating some drug addicts for their entire life, costing Mississippi taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The habitual offender laws sentence drug offenders for life if they commit three felonies in their lifetimes. Since hard drug possession is a felony, it’s not hard for a poor addict to get a life sentence.

As of June 2019, there were 2,635 people serving a sentence handed down under Mississippi’s habitual laws. To get a life sentence, one of the felonies has to be “violent” but our state law considers breaking into a garage a violent offense. It’s easy for a poor addict, desperate for drugs, to get a life sentence.

The report (https://www.fwd.us/news/we-all-pay/) states:

“The data reveals that decades-long sentences are routinely handed down for minor offenses in Mississippi. Nearly 250 people are serving 20+ year habitual penalties for nonviolent offenses. The majority of people serving these very long sentences for nonviolent offenses were convicted of drug-related crimes. There are currently 154 people serving 20+ habitual sentences for drug offenses, and 31 people are serving 20+ years for the lowest-level drug offense: drug possession.”

“Like long sentences in general, life sentences are not reserved for the most serious violations of the law. Seventy-eight people are serving 50 or more years in prison for drug crimes, and 21 people have been sentenced to die in prison for simple drug possession as a result of the habitual laws. These life and virtual life sentences are especially alarming, because they represent the most punitive action the state can take against an individual, short of the death penalty.”