Lives thrown away. Families torn apart.

Disproportionately long prison sentences do not enhance public safety. But they do destroy families, increase the burden on Mississippi taxpayers, and exacerbate the overpopulated prison crisis that is the reason Mississippi has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country.

When asked, two-thirds of voters believed that habitual sentences should not be applied to people whose current conviction is for a nonviolent crime, and more than half of voters believed that convictions older than ten years should not count towards a habitual sentence.

The hammer of these harsh sentencing enhancements are not theoretical tales that rarely see application. Paul Houser was sentenced to 60 years in prison for a drug crime because of Mississippi’s habitual laws, with one of his prior convictions being 20 years old. Tameka Drummer was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility for parole for marijuana possession because of these same laws. James Vardaman will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole after being arrested with seven boxes of Sudafed.

A quick glance at the numbers

  • Today, there are over 2,600 people serving habitual sentences in Mississippi prisons,
  • Nearly 1/3 of this group has been sentenced to 20 or more years in prison,
  • Approximately 439 people have been sentenced to die in prison either through life or virtual life sentences of 50 years or more,
  • The 78 people serving 50+ years are costing Mississippi taxpayers in excess of $70 million.

In an interview, Paul Houser’s son said that “it’s heartbreaking… I just wish he had some kind of hope.”

With only weeks remaining in the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers have a vehicle in House Bill 796 that will address Mississippi’s habitual laws. They have the chance to make sure that the punishment fits the crime and decades-old convictions will not be used to take a person’s life away, destroy a family, cost our state’s taxpayers millions, and continue to shine a dangerous light on the state from the Department of Justice.

HB 796, authored by Rep. Nick Bain, has been sent to conference where it will be debated for details and hopefully come out in an impactful form and head to the desk of the Governor.