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March 31, 2011

New ACLU report assails racial skew in drug sentencing in Mississippi

Numbersgame_300 As detailed in this AP article, 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."  Here is more:

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.

This ACLU press release details some other aspects of this new report:

The report reveals that while the use of confidential informants is a cornerstone of the state’s regional drug task force operations, the practice is shrouded in secrecy. As part of the investigation that led to the creation of the report, the ACLU of Mississippi spent nearly two years seeking basic information about the nature and extent of the practice by requesting access to documents that state officials acknowledged should be publicly available under the Mississippi Public Records Act. Yet no access was ever given.

Law enforcement justifies the practice of using confidential informants – especially in drug cases – as an essential means for identifying those who commit crimes and for securing their convictions. But the many perverse incentives embedded in the practice invite abuse and disparity, undermining the fundamental legitimacy of the criminal justice system.

The report offers a number of solutions for improving the effectiveness and fairness of the state’s criminal justice system, including replacing mandatory minimum sentences with a flexible set of sentencing standards and guidelines, requiring corroboration of testimony by all informants and making information regarding the reporting requirements and evaluations of drug task forces publicly available.

The full report can be accessed at this link.

March 31, 2011 at 09:09 AM | Permalink

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