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.

Creative Commons License

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

Avatar photo

Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.