Mandatory minimum sentences a problem in Mississippi

A new report from Empower Mississippi gives Mississippi a low grade for its sentencing laws.

Grading Justice gives Mississippi a grade of “D” for its policies related to mandatory minimum sentences that prevent judges from exercising discretion and considering the facts of the case. These sentences tie the hands of judges and apply sentences that can be grossly disproportionate to the underlying conduct. In recent years, states have moved to eliminate mandatory minimums to allow for individualized sentences that restore the notion of a punishment that fits the crime.

What was reviewed?

When grading the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, Grading Justice examines three policies:

  1. Has the state eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses?
  2. Has the state eliminated “Three Strikes” or habitual laws that apply long mandatory sentences to those with previous offenses on their record?
  3. Do judges have flexibility to adjust sentences within a range, suspend sentences, or use a safety valve?

Mississippi technically imposes minimum sentences on drug offenses, applying a sentencing range to drug offenses based on the amount of drugs involved. Judges have the ability to suspend sentences, up to 100 percent, at their discretion, and this prevents many of the worst outcomes from mandatory minimum sentences.

However, most cases never make it to trial. The majority of criminal cases are resolved with a plea deal, where defendants are incentivized to plead guilty rather than risk a potentially higher sentence at trial. Mississippi’s law could be improved by adjusting the minimum sentencing range for drug offenses to zero, to ensure that defendants are treated equally throughout the sentencing process.

Mississippi’s regressive habitual enhancement applies life sentences to individuals with two previous criminal offenses in their past, if one was a crime of violence, regardless of the nature of their current offense. It also applies a mandatory maximum sentence to anyone charged with their third felony offense, regardless of the nature of the offenses and without consideration for any mitigating factors.

Mississippi’s judges have wide latitude to suspend sentences, up to 100 percent, in their discretion, except in the cases of individuals charged with habitual offenses.

These policies earn the state a “D” for its mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Overall, Mississippi received a “D” in Grading Justice, pointing to the need for further criminal justice reforms in the state.

Grading Justice, a project of Empower Mississippi, scores criminal justice reforms in the Magnolia State by examining 15 policies across the justice system, from pretrial to sentencing and reentry.

Read the full report

The full report is available at