Parchman State Penitentiary Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Legislation awaiting Gov. Tate Reeves’ signature would set mandatory minimum sentences for carjacking and fleeing law enforcement –  a move that criminal justice advocates say will increase the prison population and not help public safety. State Director Alesha Judkins said mandatory minimums add to the state’s growing prison population and limit judges from using discretion in sentencing. 

“Mississippi is not in the position to handle a situation where we will be sending more people to prison for longer,” she said.

The state has the highest imprisonment rate in the nation and its rate is higher than some countries. Mississippi’s prison population has hovered above 19,000 for several months – numbers the state hasn’t seen since before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the Department of Corrections. 

Senate Bill 2101, proposed by Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, and passed by both chambers, would set a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for carjacking and a 10-year sentence for armed carjackings.

The bill also proposes raising the minimum sentence for fleeing that results in injury to five years and seven years for fleeing that results in death. The legislation also sets a 10-year maximum sentence for fleeing and operating a vehicle in a reckless manner. 

Even without mandatory minimums, Mississippi is running out of space in its prisons, Judkins said. The entire prison system has a capacity of about 22,000, according to Department of Corrections records. 

In January, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, announced three bills including SB 2101 that would set or raise minimum sentences. The other bills, which proposed minimum sentences for motor vehicle theft and receiving stolen property, did not pass.

Hosemann spokesperson Brittney Davis said the legislation was in response to incidents of violent crime. 

“The legislation is intended to act as a deterrent by mandating a certain sentence or raising penalties,” she said in a Thursday statement. “While we are invested in issues like education, rehabilitation, and mental health, which prevent crime, Lt. Governor Hosemann also believes those who commit violent crimes should serve time.” 

In a Jan. 5 interview with Supertalk, Hosemann said information he receives from the Administrative Office of Courts indicates that judges are suspending sentences for people convicted of carjacking, meaning the convicted would serve less than the mandatory minimum prison sentence. 

Fillingane echoed this point about suspended sentences during a Jan. 26 Judiciary B Committee hearing. The senator said sentence suspensions are especially prevalent in the Jackson metro area. 

“It’s basically a warning and I think the thought being this is such a violent type situation and it’s become so prevalent in this area that we don’t want judges to completely suspend the sentence,” he said. 

Language in the bill specifies that minimum sentences cannot be reduced or suspended and that defendants would not be eligible for electronic monitoring or house arrest. 

During committee meetings, Fillingane was asked about the basis and supporting data to justify the need for the bill. Sen. Angela Turner-Ford, D-West Point, asked how increasing the current carjacking minimum sentence would change judges’ ability to suspend sentences and deter crime. Fillingane said he didn’t have the answer. 

“That’s the explanation I’ve been given,” he said. 

Fillingane did not respond to a request for comment.

In January as the committee hearings were going on, State Public Defender Andre De Gruy fact checked claims Fillingane made in committee meetings by reviewing carjacking convictions for Hinds County. 

He looked through four years worth of reports and found five carjacking convictions. From there, he looked up the cases in the Mississippi Electronic Courts system and found two cases with suspended sentences. 

Half of all counties in the state aren’t on the electronic court system, so the ability to access case information for individuals charged with criminal charges such as carjackings in non-participating courts would need to be done in person. 

Lawmakers haven’t specified what court information they reviewed to introduce the legislation. But De Gruy said if they were referring to the Administrative Office of Courts reports, it is possible to misinterpret them. 

He noted that he tailored his search to carjacking convictions because the reports would include more dispositions such as dismissed and remanded cases for people who haven’t been convicted.  

DeGruy said Wednesday that when the next Administrative Office of Courts report is available in July, he expects to see carjacking convictions and sentence suspensions for Hinds County to remain about the same. 

Through a records request with MDOC, found that as of July 2022, the average sentence statewide for carjacking was nearly 12 years and 17 years for armed carjacking – evidence that judges are sentencing more than the mandatory minimum. 

While lawmakers have raised concern about judge’s ability to suspend sentences, suspension is something they are allowed to do through judicial discretion.  

Criminal justice advocacy groups including FWD and conservative group Empower Mississippi have spoken out against the mandatory minimum bills and the effect they would have on discretion. 

“This means the Legislature would be mandating a one-size-fits-all sentence instead of allowing local judges to consider the circumstances and perhaps, in some cases, issue a punishment that would be more effective and less expensive than prison,” Empower Senior Adviser Forest Thigpen said in a March 26 statement. 

Judkins wants more people to consider other costs of incarceration, such as the amount taxpayers spend on the prison system and the impact on incarcerated people and their families. 

Taxpayers spend over $360 million annually on the prison system, according to a November report by Mississippians also face longer prison sentences than the national average for a range of offenses. 

Judkins said incarcerating people under mandatory minimums can affect people’s sense of hope and access to the opportunities like rehabilitative programs that make prisons safer for the people who live and work there, as well as help reduce recidivism.

Correction 4/17/23: There currently are no mandatory minimums for carjacking and armed carjacking. Senate Bill 2101 would set a 10-year maximum for fleeing and operating a vehicle in a reckless manner.  The changes in the sentencing were reported incorrectly in a previous story.

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Mina, a California native, covers the criminal justice system. Before joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Clarion Ledger and newspapers in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.