The Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman on Jan. 15, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

For the money Mississippi spends each year to imprison a kid, it could have paid the annual tuition to a state college — twice.

One out of every 14 people in Mississippi’s prison system — about 1,181 — were arrested and detained before the age of 18, Southern Poverty Law Center calculated for a recent report.

The practice of locking up minors especially harms Black families: 85% of these people who arrived to jail as children are Black.

Lawmakers are considering two bills aimed at reducing prison sentences for young people, which would help the state with its goal of decreasing the prison population, after a law passed last year expanded eligibility for parole.

“We’re trying to make a case that with the juvenile sentencing — it makes common sense. That’s just common sense if you want to decarcerate prisons,” said SPLC policy analyst Delvin Davis, who researched the report.

One bill, authored by Republican Senate Judiciary B Committee Chairman Sen. Joey Fillingane, addresses life sentences for people who were under 18 when they committed a crime. The new law would make most of these people eligible for parole after 20 years.

Another bill, called the Youthful Offender Law and authored by Democratic Rep. Jeffrey Harness makes it easier for people who were under 21 when they were arrested to earn supervised release for good behavior.

Mississippi remains one of the most incarcerating states in the nation, recently surpassing Oklahoma after that state passed significant reform that allowed more people to commute, or shorten, their sentences.

If U.S. states were countries, Mississippi would have the second highest incarceration rate in the world behind Louisiana, according to Prison Policy Initiative. About one out of every 100 people in Mississippi are locked up, including jails and immigration and juvenile detention centers.

The cost is extraordinary: Mississippi spends $18,480 a year to incarcerate one person. To compare, the cost of in-state tuition at Mississippi State University and University of Mississippi are each under $10,000 a year.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled in 2012 that sentencing minors to mandatory life without parole is unconstitutional, even in cases of violent crime. Though, Mississippi challenged that ruling, and last year the new conservative court upheld harsh sentencing for juveniles in some instances because of the Mississippi case.

Science shows the human brain doesn’t fully develop until a person’s mid-20s and young people are more susceptible to peer pressure and impulsive behavior.

“Incarcerating youth has been proven to have many consequences, including an increased likelihood of recidivism after release, exacerbation of mental illnesses, and less success with educational achievement and gainful employment,” the SPLC report reads.

Nearly 70 people who entered Mississippi’s prison system as juveniles are still locked up 20 years later. The oldest of them is 67. Imprisoning those people alone is costing taxpayers $1.2 million a year.

The SPLC argues the state may reinvest that money in ways that help people reenter society and become successful, such as job training and counseling.

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.