Harsh sentencing policies and the use of confidential informants has created a racially discriminatory criminal justice system in Mississippi that harms innocent individuals and erodes the rule of law, according to a report released Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Mississippi.
Mississippi’s drug laws force judges to abide by a harsh set of mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes and allow for extraordinarily high maximum sentences. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that the average state prison sentence for drug sales in the United States was 5.7 years, compared to the current average of 10.4 years in Mississippi. Similarly, for drug possession, the average prison sentence was 4.5 years, compared to 7.2 years in Mississippi.
In addition, black Mississippians are three times more likely than whites to go to prison on drug charges, despite the fact that both groups use drugs at virtually identical rates.
“Excessive reliance on imprisonment in Mississippi’s drug policy is wrongheaded and wasteful, senselessly incarcerating those who do not belong behind bars, at significant taxpayer expense,” the ACLU’s report said. “Public safety and the rule of law would be better served through a health-based solution that provides treatment and counseling to low-level drug offenders — replacing spiteful punishment with reasoned rehabilitation that furthers the best interests of both offenders and society at large.”
Federal funding for state and local agencies encourages the mass arrest of low-level perpetrators, according to the report, because it simply rewards every arrest for a drug-related crime, regardless of the impact on crime rates or pubic safety.
“Logically flawed, this ‘numbers game’ approach to law enforcement is especially irrational and destructive in the context of drug policing, where there exist essentially limitless quantities of arrestable drug users as well as prospective dealers eager to fill the shoes and take the business of those arrested,” the report stated.
The “numbers game” approach has fueled the use of confidential informants, which law enforcement claim are necessary for identifying those who commit crimes. Rather than target high-level drug dealers, law enforcement typically arrest large quantities of small-time offenders, who accept plea bargains and become informants to avoid facing Mississippi’s harsh sentencing statutes.
“This is a vicious cycle, and, barring a change in policy, it will continue to ensnare an exponentially growing number of Mississippians,” the report warned. “The widespread recruitment of community members as informants, coupled with aggressive police tactics and excessive sentencing policies, results in a ‘police state’ atmosphere that should not be tolerated anywhere in America, and that must not be tolerated in Mississippi.”
In a statement released with the report, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi Nsombi Lambright said there was an “urgent need to reform the policies that govern the drug enforcement system as a whole in Mississippi.”