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Beyond Harsh: 86 Mississippi Prisoners Serving Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses

Some states have since repealed or amended their “three-strikes” laws due to unjust outcomes. Mississippi has not. This led to a buildup of 86 prisoners serving LWOP in Mississippi state prisons for nonviolent crimes, The Clarion-Ledger reported on March 18, 2020.

The Mississippi state prison system holds about 19,000 prisoners. Of them, 2,600 are serving long sentences enhanced by prior offenses—including the 86 convicted of nonviolent offenses and sentenced to LWOP. Incarcerating the prisoners with enhanced sentences costs Mississippi taxpayers over $38 million each year, the newspaper reported. This helps explain why Mississippi has the second-highest incarceration rate of any state.

Some of the nonviolent LWOPs are incredibly unjust. Four are serving LWOP for simple marijuana possession, one for shoplifting, one for intimidation, three for driving under the influence, two for forgery, one for uttering forgery, three for simple assault, and two for motor vehicle theft. It is difficult to see what public good is served by incarcerating these people for the rest of their lives.

Tameca Drummer, 45, was stopped by police in Corinth for a traffic violation. Police searched her car and found 2 ounces of marijuana. She has served a dozen years of her LWOP sentence and will likely die in prison.

“Ms. Drummer’s case is among the, if not the, most glaring injustice I’ve seen in my career,” public defender Justin Cook, who unsuccessfully appealed her case on the basis of the sentence violating the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, told the newspaper. “I think it is the most prime example of a misuse of habitual sentencing laws I’ve ever seen. Her dying in prison serves no purpose other than cruelty.”

Charlie Blount, 45, was a passenger in a stolen car in 1991 when he was 16. In 1993, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor simple assault. Then, in 2011, he was convicted of vehicle theft and given LWOP. The Mississippi Court of Appeals and Supreme Court have rejected his argument that his misdemeanor offense should not have been used to enhance the felony sentence to LWOP.

“I know it’s real, but it seems unreal to me,” said Trianna Blount, Charlie’s mother, who agrees that her son should serve time for stealing a pickup, but not the rest of his life.

Bills have been filed in the Mississippi Legislature seeking to modify the habitual sentencing enhancement law—thus far to no avail. Democratic State Senator Derrick Simmons filed three of the bills—one to permit parole after a fixed number of years, another to prohibit the use of a sentence that was completed more than a decade earlier when determining habitual status, and a third to prohibit the use for enhancement purposes of an offense committed while younger than 18.

Simmons says Mississippians want to strand all of the prisoners in prison when they should be interested in making them productive members of society. This attitude has led to problems in the state’s prisons, such as overcrowding, squalor, violence, and suicide previously reported in PLN. [See PLN, July 2020, p. 1.]