Where do Mississippi’s Senate candidates stand on criminal justice? It’s hard to tell by perusing their campaign websites – none of which dedicate space to issues of criminal justice.

But Mississippi currently incarcerates people at a rate higher than the national average – some 19,000 people are in state custody, and another 30,000 on parole and probation.The state is also home to one federal facility, in Yazoo City, and a privately owned prison in Tutwiler.

Mississippi Today asked leading candidates’ campaigns for their stances on criminal justice, what they think should be done about the mandatory minimum sentences currently in place in the federal system and whether they’re concerned about current prison conditions in Mississippi. Here’s what they said:

GOP incumbents Wicker, Hyde-Smith: Reform “a worthwhile debate,” but needs careful study 

A prison and sentencing reform bill backed by the White House is currently on hold until after midterm elections, per news reports. The First Step Act, which had passed the House in May, would include recidivism reduction measures like vocational training and rehabilitation programs.

But debate over whether the legislation would reduce federal mandatory sentencing minimums have slowed the measure’s progress as conservatives like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas staunchly against sentencing reform.

Both of Mississippi’s Republican incumbents, Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker, indicate they are open to such legislation.

“Sen. Hyde-Smith has the highest respect for the men and women who enforce the laws to ensure the safety of our communities,” said campaign spokesperson Melissa Scallan. “The senator is following the ongoing debate on sentencing, prison and criminal justice reforms, and will carefully study any legislation that comes before the Senate for consideration.”

“The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. I believe criminal justice reform is a worthwhile debate in this country, and applaud the Trump Administration’s efforts to move the ball forward,” Wicker said in a statement. “As part of that debate, mandatory minimums and their effectiveness should be reviewed. I will continue to listen to advocates on both sides of this important issue.”

Challengers on “minor drug offenses” and “heinous crimes”

Although Mike Espy and Chris McDaniel have little in common, one thing both of Hyde-Smith’s main challengers in the Nov. 6 special election agree on is drawing a distinction between people who’ve committed violent crimes and those punished for non-violent offenses.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville Credit: Gil Ford Photography

But broader criminal justice reform would only hand votes to Democrats, said McDaniel, a Republican state senator from Ellisville.

“While there is some room to improve the criminal judicial process for non-violent criminals — and to ultimately reduce the scope of government intrusion into the lives of peaceful people — an increasingly violent cohort of Democrat thugs coupled with Congress’s refusal to fund the border wall would seem to militate against going soft on crime, no matter how badly Democrats’ wish to add a new and motivated voting bloc to the electoral calculus,” McDaniel said in an email.

Espy, the leading Democrat in the race who is the former secretary of agriculture from the Bill Clinton Administration, acknowledged the country’s rate of incarceration, adding that “many deserve to be incarcerated — some for heinous crimes.”

U.S. Democratic Senate candidate Mike Espy. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

“However, some who are in prison are there because of inadequate counsel, improper or insufficient evidence, or are serving long sentences even though the crimes they committed are of a non-violent nature,” Espy said.

“I believe that penalties applied upon conviction for non-violent offenses should be revisited as a matter of public policy. Options should be explored such as revising penalties downward upon conviction for minor or soft drug offenses. Rehabilitation options should be explored that allows the offenders to reach their full potential instead of lengthy incarceration that burdens the taxpayers.”

Wicker’s Democratic challenger, state Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, is perhaps the most policy-oriented candidate on criminal justice reform in the Senate contest. Baria has a strong stance against federal mandatory sentencing, which he called “as unforgiving as it is inefficient.”

Saying that the federal policy of mandatory minimums have an “inherently racial bent,” which leads to racial disparities and devastated communities, Baria said:

“We have seen entire generations of black and brown men locked up and languishing in prison for minor drug offenses. For 10 years, from 2003 until 2013 – when mandatory minimums were pushed at the federal level, we saw the prison population swell to 2.2 million, 60 percent black and Latino. These policies have done nothing to make us safer while dramatically increasing our prison populations nationwide,” Baria said in a statement.

He cited information stating that nearly 5 million black children have had a parent in prison and studies showing that formerly incarcerated employees make 10 to 40 percent less than similar workers who have no history of incarceration.

“I believe that there needs to be wholescale reform when it comes to how we address the war on drugs at the federal level. We have been fighting this war for years and we have been losing on every front. The solution cannot simply be to lock up more citizens for longer, rather, we should allow federal prosecutors and judges the discretion when charging and sentencing,” Baria said.

Mississippi prison conditions

In August, Mississippi’s prisons drew national concern over health care and transparency practices after the Department of Corrections reported 16 prisoner deaths in one month — a record high in the last six years. (In September, the department reported five in-custody deaths.)

Pelicia Hall, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections Credit: MDOC

Though the deaths primarily fall under the state’s purview, the department announced an FBI investigation for transparency’s sake. Could the state of Mississippi’s prisons become a federal issue, such as if they were in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment?

McDaniel didn’t answer the question when asked; Hyde-Smith declined to make a statement because the issue, according to her spokeswoman, was not federal and the causes of death had yet to be determined.

As of early October, the department still had not completed its investigations on at least two deaths, a spokeswoman told Mississippi Today, though prisons commissioner Pelicia Hall herself identified at least one of those deaths as a homicide in September.

Wicker called the number of deaths “alarming” and said he hoped state government leaders were taking the matter seriously; Espy said the governor and the state legislature should investigate the deaths.

“I found, and still do find, those deaths concerning,” said Baria, the only candidate who commented on the deaths the month they occurred. “As a state we have the duty under the 8th Amendment to ensure that no one suffers from cruel and unusual punishment. Thus, we are responsible for the protection and well-being of all of our citizens, even those who are incarcerated.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.