Habitual Offender Laws Tearing Black Families Apart, Busting the Budget, Warns Group

Photo courtesy FWD.us

When a kid stands before his mom after repeatedly defying her and acting out, mom tends to judge the child a little more harshly. It’s the same kind of “third-strike” behavior that applies to the court system. When a judge reviews a repeat offender, she may be tempted to evaluate the suspect more severely. And joining the judge in her waning impatience (and inciting them further, perhaps), is an eager prosecutor hungry to etch a new notch in his annual report for the sake of impressing voters.

This is a reality that helps make Mississippi the state with the third highest imprisonment rate in the country. In fact, fair justice system advocate FWD.us released a report last month revealing that Mississippi’s incarceration crisis is being driven, in part, by extreme sentences arising from judicial impatience with repeat offenders.

FWD.us, which focuses on repairing the nation’s broken immigration and criminal justice systems, analyzed the number of people sentenced under habitual offense laws and the length and cost of these stacking habitual penalties. After examining the prison data, the organization discovered that of the more than 2,600 people in prison today who have been sentenced with a habitual penalty, one-third—906 people—got sentenced to 20 or more years in prison. Nearly half of that group, the organization found, got sentenced to die in prison with either a life sentence or a virtual life sentence of 50 years of more.

These aren’t multiple offenses that are violent in nature, according to Jade Morgan, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Three Strikes Project, which represents people affected by habitual offender statutes.

“I have plenty (of clients) who were sentenced for minor things, like drug possession. Someone may have had $25 worth of crack and were sentenced to 60 years,” Morgan says. “They got that 60-year sentence by having two prior offenses before getting hit with ‘habitual,’ non-valid, mandatory time, which is 30 (years). One of their priors was a drug offense, so they get ‘second subsequent drug enhancement,’ which doubles their 30 years to 60, and they’ll have to get 60 years of mandatory time.”

“This is just drug possession. This possession was not even possession with intent (to distribute), so what you’re really seeing is people with drug addictions being penalized (for their addiction).”

The issue of incarcerating someone over a genetic or behavioral disposition for chemical dependence goes further than mere injustice, however. The report explains these draconian laws pile up time in what is, essentially, an onerously expensive hotel stay for thousands upon thousands of nonviolent inmates.

“Habitual penalties are costing taxpayers hundreds of millions in unnecessary spending,” according to the report. “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.”

Dividing $70 million by the number 78 tells us that the impoverished state of Mississippi is spending almost $900,000 per inmate. It would be cheaper just to rent the inmates a room with a lifetime supply of the drug of their choice.

Some politicians claim they are sounding the alarm on the waste. After discovering egregious prison costs, state legislators passed two different rounds of criminal justice reform. In 2014, they passed an overhaul of the whole system that was intended to cut expenses, and again last year, with the passage of a law to broaden parole eligibility for people sentenced for nonviolent crimes. However, the human component of the equation cannot take second place to money issues. There is a distinct element of the situation that carries the unmistakable whiff of racism.

According to research, the population most affected by these laws are Black men older than the age of 40. In fact, 75 percent of inmates sentenced to 20+-year habitual sentences in Mississippi are Black men. The laws also have a fondness for slightly older men, with 52 percent of people affected being between ages 40 and 54 years. Twenty-one percent of those impacted are under 40 years old, while 27 percent are aged 55 years or older. In a way, the laws are so biased and selective they are practically serial killers for minority, middle-aged suspects.

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