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We All Pay: Mississippi's Harmful Habitual Laws

Download a summary of our report to see how Mississippi’s habitual laws work and what research says about long sentences

"...People can have extra years, decades, or even life imprisonment added to their sentences if they have ever been convicted of crimes in the past."

Background

Mississippi is experiencing an incarceration crisis, driven in large part by its use of long and life sentences. First-time drug possession can land you in prison for 20 years. Stealing tools from a garage can result in 25 years behind bars. On top of these already extreme sentences, people can have extra years, decades, or even life imprisonment added to their sentences if they have ever been convicted of crimes in the past. 

These so-called “habitual” penalties can be used at the complete discretion of the prosecutor and applied to any offense, including minor crimes such as shoplifting or drug possession. As a result, Mississippi has the second highest imprisonment rate in the country, driven by thousands of people serving extreme sentences in prisons across the state. Lawmakers are coming back into session, and they have a chance to change these laws that have hurt too many families.

Mississippi has the second highest imprisonment rate in the country, driven by thousands of people serving extreme sentences in prisons across the state.

How Do Mississippi’s Habitual Laws Work?

Mississippi has two habitual laws that can be used by prosecutors to increase prison terms. Both versions of the habitual law:

  • Mandate prison time, making people ineligible for common alternatives to incarceration, like probation, no matter how minor the offense.
  • Require the judge to hand down either the maximum possible sentence or a life sentence. 
  • Deny people the opportunity to earn their release from prison through parole or “good time” programs that reward people for attending programs or following prison rules. 
  • Count all prior felony convictions against a person. No consideration is given to the number of years that have passed since the previous convictions, the person’s age at the time of the priors, or the severity of the previous convictions.
75% of people serving 20+ year habitual sentences are Black men, even though they make up just 13% of the state's population.

How Have the Habitual Laws Impacted Mississippi?

Too many people are serving far too long in prison: 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 spend more than 20 years behind bars. Nearly half of that group (439 people) has been sentenced to a life or virtual life sentence of 50 years or more. 

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.

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. 

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve gotten to know some of the families impacted by these harmful laws. Paul Houser was sentenced to 60 years in prison for a drug crime at the age of 45. One of the prior convictions prosecutors used to convict him as a “habitual offender” was a marijuana offense that happened when he was a teenager. His father and stepmother have a hard time visiting his prison which is hours away from their home, and his grandson has never seen Paul outside of prison walls. Gregory Hollins was sentenced to 60 years in prison for a drug offense in 2010. His mother and brother miss him and worry about him every day. Gregory’s case is not uncommon. In fact, 75% of people serving 20+ year habitual sentences are Black men, even though they make up just 13% of the state’s population.

As lawmakers return to the Capitol this year, they must prioritize reforms...that will reduce the number of people incarcerated in Mississippi’s all-too-often deadly prisons.

What Does Research Say About Habitual Sentences?

Supporters of long sentences have traditionally argued that they improve public safety by deterring crime and keeping “dangerous” people off of the streets. However, research has shown that long prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure, and evidence from multiple states proves that prison sentences for many offenses can be shortened with no effect on public safety. Very long and life sentences also cannot be defended from a crime control stance in light of the extensive evidence that people are far less likely to break the law as they age.

When people are separated from their family and community ties for decades, the impacts spill over into the rest of the family and future generations. When a family member is incarcerated, their loved ones face a host of challenges. When the incarcerated person is a parent, these consequences are especially severe. Over half of incarcerated parents reported that they were the primary financial support for their families. And when mothers are incarcerated, their children are often displaced from their homes and frequently placed in foster care.

What can lawmakers do about it?

Last year, lawmakers advanced an important piece of legislation that would have limited the use of Mississippi’s senselessly punitive habitual laws. Unfortunately, that bill never made it to a final vote as lawmakers adjourned and returned home to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Since that time, dozens of people have died in prisons across the state as the pandemic rages behind bars. One of those people was Mr. Ronald Estelle, a 77 year old man who was serving a life sentence for a non-violent offense under the state’s habitual laws. As lawmakers return to the Capitol this year, they must prioritize reforms to the state’s habitual laws that will reduce the number of people incarcerated in Mississippi’s all-too-often deadly prisons.

To learn more about Mississippi’s harmful habitual laws, click here.

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