JACKSON, MS – Overly harsh and punitive sentences for low-level, non-violent drug crimes feed a racially discriminatory criminal justice system in Mississippi that fails to protect the public’s safety, according to a new report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Mississippi.
According to the report, “Numbers Game: The Vicious Cycle of Incarceration in Mississippi’s Criminal Justice System,” black Mississippians are three times more likely than whites to go to prison on drug charges, even though drug use rates across the state are virtually identical for blacks and whites. And because the state’s drug task force funding is contingent upon securing convictions, low-level drug offenders ensnared in the system feel compelled to become confidential informants who are used indiscriminately to ramp up the quantity of drug arrests with little regard to the quality of the cases they help to build.
“There is an urgent need to reform the policies that govern the drug enforcement system as a whole in Mississippi,” said Nsombi Lambright, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “Arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement tactics need to be replaced by policies that actually enhance our public safety, protect civil rights and ensure the state’s fiscal solvency.”
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.