ACLU: State sentencing law harsher on blacks

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union has released a report calling on Mississippi to revamp sentencing laws the group says disproportionately impose harsher penalties on drug offenders who are black, and fuel a high incarceration rate.

The report, “Numbers Game: The Vicious Cycle of Incarceration in Mississippi’s Criminal Justice System,” focused on the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the use of informants and the use of federal crime-fighting funding.

Nsombi Lambright, ACLU Mississippi executive director, left copies of the report with key lawmakers Monday in hopes of inspiring future legislation.

“We’d also like to see a state funded indigent defense system established. Most of those serving long prison sentences were represented by public defenders who were not prepared for their cases and that leads to more racial disparity,” Lambright said.

The report said the state’s criminal code has a rigid and excessive schedule of mandatory minimum prison terms for drug possession that vary according to the weight of the drugs involved. For example, an individual possessing less than one-tenth of a gram of cocaine — about a tenth of what’s in the size of a sugar packet — can be charged with a felony, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison.

The length of the mandatory sentence increases as the weight goes up, with possession of little more than an ounce of cocaine requiring a 10-year mandatory minimum. Such sentences have resulted in overcrowded prisons and a ballooning financial strain on the state, officials said. Mississippi has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, at 749 prisoners per 100,000 residents, according to the report.

“While such policies may have been intended to provide ammunition against the highest level drug dealers, over a decade of these laws’ application reveals that the low-level, nonviolent offenders — many of them in need of drug treatment — are in fact the ones bearing the greatest brunt,” the report stated.

The report’s recommendations included replacing mandatory minimum sentences with a flexible set of sentencing standards and guidelines and lowering and narrowing the prescribed sentencing range for drug sales, which is currently zero to 30 years.

Ann Shelton, 69, from Columbus, Miss., said her son is serving a 42-year prison sentence after being convicted on drug charges involving about an ounce of crack cocaine. Shelton, who joined Lambright at the news conference, said her son, Atiba Parker, had no prior convictions when he was sentenced in 2005.

“When he comes out, I’ll be dead if he has to do the whole 42 years,” Shelton said. “He wasn’t a habitual offender.”

House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said it’s difficult to change the sentencing laws because many lawmakers have campaigned on tough-on-crime platforms. But Blackmon agreed some laws need changing.

“You would have to adopt uniform sentencing guidelines. I don’t know how or when we could get that done here,” Blackmon said.

Blackmon said the black community has been disproportionately affected because drugs commonly used there, such as crack, often draw stiffer penalties than those involving powder cocaine.

The ACLU is also pushing for officials to steer more federal crime fighting dollars to treatment and prevention services instead of drug task forces. The report said the task forces are focused more on quantity that quality to meet the requirements to get the federal funding.

“The racial dynamic comes into play when you look at the neighborhoods that are targeted. It’s often a low-wealth community, which tends to be a community of color,” Lambright said.

According to the report, blacks are three times more likely than whites to go to prison on drug charges, even though drug use rates among blacks and whites are nearly identical.

Senate Drug Policy Committee Chairman Sidney Albritton, R-Picayune, said he didn’t think federal money should be diverted from the task forces, but he said more should be spent on prevention and treatment. Albritton also agreed that some of the laws are excessive, particularly for those who need treatment rather than incarceration.

“We’ll never arrest our way out of this problem,” said Albritton, a former law officer. “If there’s ever going to be a silver bullet, it will be prevention.”

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press