WASHINGTON, DC – A new, first-of-its-kind report released today finds that Mississippi’s incarceration crisis is driven by the use of “habitual” penalties that add years, decades, or even life sentences to prison terms if the person has been convicted of crimes in the past. More than 2,600 people are in prison today with a sentence that includes one of these penalties, which can be applied at the complete discretion of local prosecutors at a huge cost to Mississippi taxpayers and families.
“Too many people are serving extreme sentences because of Mississippi’s habitual laws,” said Laura Bennett, Manager for Criminal Justice Reform at FWD.us. “Research shows that everyone pays for long prison sentences that increase corrections costs and hurt the communities that are directly impacted without providing any public safety benefits.”
This groundbreaking analysis of Mississippi prison data is the first to document the number of people sentenced under the habitual laws, as well as the length and cost of habitual penalties. Of the more than 2,600 people in prison today who have been sentenced with a habitual penalty, one-third (906 people) have been sentenced to 20 or more years in prison. Nearly half of that group (439 people) has been sentenced to die in prison with either a life or virtual life sentence of 50 years of more.
Other key findings include:
- People convicted of drug offenses are receiving some of the most harmful sentences. In Mississippi, sentence lengths for drug offenses 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. On top of these already long sentences, more than 150 people in prison were sentenced to 20+ year habitual penalties for drug crimes. Nearly half of them (78 people) received a life or virtual life sentence.
- The impact of these laws is not felt equally across all communities. Habitual penalties are applied overwhelmingly and disproportionately to Black men. Despite making up 13 percent of the state’s population, over 75 percent of the people in prison with 20+ year habitual sentences are Black men;
- Habitual penalties are costing taxpayers hundreds of millions in unnecessary spending. Taking just a small group of those sentenced to habitual penalties demonstrates the extraordinary expense of the policy. The 78 people in prison serving life and virtual life habitual sentences for drug crimes alone were collectively sentenced to 4,668 years in prison at a cost of nearly $70 million to state taxpayers;
“These findings confirm that extreme sentences are a major driver of the incarceration crisis in Mississippi,” said Bennett. “That is why a growing number of state leaders and bipartisan voices are calling for common-sense reforms to the habitual laws that will safely reduce incarceration and corrections spending.”
Mississippi has the third highest imprisonment rate in the country and taxpayers spend $360 million on the prison system each year. While the two states that currently imprison more people – Louisiana and Oklahoma – have each recently passed major reforms to reduce incarceration, Mississippi’s prison population has increased in recent years.
Polling shows that Mississippi voters across the political spectrum support bold criminal justice reforms like those adopted in other states, including more than eight in 10 Republicans, Democrats and Independents who say it is important to reduce the jail and prison population in Mississippi. These voters specifically support changes to the habitual laws and believe that people should be eligible for probation, parole, and shorter prison sentences even if they have prior convictions.
For more information and to read the full report, visit www.FWD.us/weallpay