The Mississippi Legislature should pass House Bill 1024, which applies a 15-year time limit on offenses that can be considered under our state habitual offender laws. The bill also excludes nonviolent crimes from being factored into the habitual offender calculation. These are reasonable reforms that will reduce Mississippi’s incarceration rate, which is one of the highest in the world.
If Mississippi had an excellent prison system designed to rehabilitate and reform, then perhaps a high incarceration rate wouldn’t be so bad. But our prisons are a mess. They are overrun with gang activity. They are grossly understaffed with poorly paid and poorly trained guards. They are full of misplaced mentally ill. The prison facilities are poorly maintained. Given this, locking people away for life based on crimes that occurred decades ago makes no sense.
The habitual offender law is especially cruel toward addicts. An addict can get convicted of felony possession and be sentenced for life based on another felony drug possession conviction that occurred decades earlier. Three convictions spread out over a 50-year span could trigger a mandatory habitual offender life sentence. This is not only cruel and inhumane to the addict, but it further burdens an already overburdened state penal system. It put addicts in a place where little will be done to treat their addiction. In some cases, it puts addicts in a deadly situation where they can be abused by vicious gang members. Addiction is a mental illness. Many addicts need treatment, not a death sentence.
The bill in its current state would not be retroactive, which we believe is a mistake. We not only need to prevent overuse of the habitual offender laws in the future, we need to correct our decades of past mistakes. Habitual offender laws were a knee-jerk political reaction to rising crime rates during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. They take away discretion from our prosecutors, judges and parole officers and make managing prison populations even more difficult.
Our prisons are in horrible condition, which is an indictment on our society and government. We need to acknowledge that habitual offender laws were a mistake and correct this mistake as soon as possible. Reducing our prison population is a necessary step until we can get our prisons back into decent shape. Passing House Bill 1024 would be a step in the right direction.