Life sentences for nonviolent crimes have to stop in state

September 22, 2016 in Letters To The Editor, Opinion

Letter to the editor

Simmons

Simmons

Earlier last week, Jimmie Gates (The Clarion-Ledger) covered the story of Patricia Brown, who was sentenced to life without parole for a single rock of cocaine.

This shocking sentence was possible because, unfortunately for Ms. Brown, her case was covered by Mississippi’s “Big” habitual offender law. This three strikes law is both one of the broadest and one of the harshest such laws in the United States. Because this law can cover so many cases, whether serious or minor, Ms. Brown’s case is not an outlier.

As Mr. Gates mentioned, there are, as of a recent count over 100 people serving life without parole sentences for nonviolent crimes sentenced under this law. This lines up with numbers I have seen suggesting that nearly one-third of all people sentenced to life without parole under this enhancement are serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes. Under this law, people have received mandatory life sentences for minor, nonviolent offenses like siphoning gasoline, stealing $250 worth of tools, having traces of cocaine in a shirt or pants pocket and stealing a computer from Walmart.

Mississippians of all stripes can agree that these are not the kinds of offenses that should send a person to prison for the rest of his or her natural life. I agree with Mr. Gates that it is time – past time – to take a hard look at this enhancement. Over the last two years, bills designed to refocus this enhancement on the kind of serious offenses it was designed for have enjoyed bipartisan support in the Mississippi Legislature. One approach proposes a simple, common sense solution to ensure that this life sentence is reserved for cases where there is a real, compelling threat to public safety – not a low-level drug or property crime.

The bill simply requires that, in order for someone to be eligible for a mandatory life sentence under this three strikes enhancement, both one of the two prior offenses and the current ‘third strike’ offense must be crimes of violence. No one would receive a mandatory life sentence for siphoning gasoline or possessing a small amount of cocaine.

The second approach ensures this enhancement is applied fairly by giving the decision to the people of Mississippi – via the jury. Before a judge can sentence someone to life without parole under this law, the jury must look at all the factors and decide that a life sentence is appropriate. This is not a new requirement to Mississippi. Existing law for offenses like armed robbery, kidnapping, and second-degree murder provide for the imposition of a life sentence, but leave the decision of whether to impose life to the jury.

These two reforms will ensure that our most severe sanctions are reserved for more serious offenses and repeated violent offenses, and not applied to small-time drug and property crimes. This means we can focus our public safety resources on ensuring public safety, not needlessly incarcerating people for the rest of their lives.

I look forward to working with my colleagues in the legislature, both Republican and Democrat, on promoting these common sense reforms.

Mississippi Sen. Derrick T. Simmons represents District 12, which includes Bolivar, Coahoma and Washington counties. He can be reached at dsimmons@senate.ms.gov.