Advocates are calling for Mississippi legislators to reform drug sentencing laws in the state. MPB’s Daniel Cherry reports how Mississippi’s punishment of drug offenders is among the toughest in the nation.

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Advocates Call on Legislature for Drug Law Sentencing Reform

By Daniel Cherry | Published 24 Feb 2012 01:45pm | comments

Advocates are calling for Mississippi legislators to reform drug sentencing laws in the state. MPB’s Daniel Cherry reports how Mississippi’s punishment of drug offenders is among the toughest in the nation.

Melissa Cooper was shot and paralyzed in 1995 and has access to strong pain medication. Cooper says an acquaintance got her caught up in a drug deal. She says she turned down several attempts, until they offered her 700 dollars for 10 pills.

“I don’t have money. I don’t work. I’m disabled. Money is hard to come by. When they offered me a certain amount of money in one lump sum at the end of the day, I kind of just gave in.”

She was arrested and sent to prison for a felony drug charge for nearly two years, until former Governor Haley Barbour granted Cooper a conditional medial release at the end of his term. Now she says her felony conviction makes life difficult. The Sentencing Project, a national advocacy group pushing sentencing reform, says Mississippi's incarceration rate is nearly 60 percent higher than the national average. Many of those are low level drug offenders. Nsombi Lambright, with the Mississippi ACLU says those offenders are marked for life.

“They have the scarlet letter F marked on their backs for the rest of their lives in most cases, and unless they’re able to hire a lawyer to get their records expunged then they have to live with that for the rest of their lives. So even though they’re out and not doing time anymore, they have to do that time for the rest of their lives in most cases.”

That’s why the ACLU is asking the legislature to reform drug sentencing laws. North Carolina has a system where minor offenders are given treatment in lieu of jail time. Senator David Jordan is the Chair of the Senate Drug Policy Committee. He says he wants to look at that model.

“Let’s find out how they’ve done this thing and see if we can, maybe not identical but similar, where we can help those persons who’ve been victimized by drugs through ignorance or whatever the situation were. It’s a handicap that will be with them the rest of their lives unless the legislature can help give them some release.”

It’s estimated Mississippi spent more than 160 million dollars last year incarcerating nonviolent offenders.

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