In the last six months, the number of non-violent drug offenders in Mississippi prisons has increased a staggering 27%, to over 4,000 people. Mississippi already imprisons more of its citizens per capita than any other state in the country. Now, Mississippi taxpayers are shelling out over $70 million per year to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders in prison. Even more devastating is the impact on Mississippi’s children as their families are unnecessarily broken.
Our State Auditor recently released a report highlighting the high costs of fatherlessness. Many fathers in Mississippi are absent from their children's lives because they are sitting in prison while their children grow up without them. If we are concerned, as we should be, about fatherlessness, we must address the ways our policies cause it and whether continuing them is worth generational damage.
Several years ago, I saw just how easily a non-violent drug charge creates a fatherless child. It was just before Thanksgiving, and I was at the courthouse as a character witness for a woman I knew. She was being sentenced for behavior stemming from a drug addiction. Arriving at the courthouse just before 9:00 am with other family members and friends, we watched the sentencing of other people as we waited for her case to be called.
One of those cases is etched in my memory. A man was led into the courtroom, his wrists and ankles shackled like every defendant. He scanned the benches of family and friends, locked eyes with a very pregnant woman, and mouthed “I love you” as he shuffled to the defendant’s table and took a seat facing the judge. The prosecuting attorney explained the non-violent drug charge the defendant faced, highlighting a previous drug charge on his record. The defense attorney acknowledged the previous charge, explaining the addiction the defendant was struggling with at the time. The defense attorney also highlighted how his client had maintained a clean record in the 10 years since the incident.
A pregnant woman, who was sitting directly across from me, was the last person to address the judge. She read her appeal from loose papers clutched in shaking hands. Through tears and occasional sobs, she begged the judge to let her fiancé come home. She was due with their first child in less than a week. She knew the devastating impact of incarceration on children because her own father was incarcerated while she was growing up, she explained. “Please, let him come home,” she pleaded. “He’s a good man. We need him.”
She walked back to her seat as she wiped her tears. The judge was quiet while she spoke but immediately handed down the sentence. Sixteen years in prison. His gavel rang through the courtroom accompanied by a sound I’ll never forget. The defendant’s body went rigid, his head tipped back, and an anguished cry filled the courtroom, intermingled with the woman’s sobs.
The man was immediately led away, looking over his shoulder as he reiterated how much he loved her through his own tears. Next case.
A family had just been torn to pieces in less than 15 minutes. How can a society that values fathers in the home be so willing to remove them for minor infractions?
As I got in my car after court that morning, I glanced a few parking places over and saw the expectant mother easing into hers. She arrived hoping her child would grow up with a father – something she never had. She left preparing to raise a child who is now a statistic in a report published by the Mississippi State Auditor’s office.
Incarceration isn’t always avoidable. But the impact of incarceration is seismic; like tipping over the first domino in a domino run. We must grapple with the collateral damage it causes. Is it really the right tool for a non-violent drug charge? Is the generational damage to that family and child worth it? There are thousands of Mississippi families like them. If the consequence of enforcing a policy is more harmful than the infraction, we must look for better solutions. A first step would be handling drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.
Christina Dent is the Founder & President of End It For Good, a Mississippi-based nonprofit. She lives with her husband and sons in Ridgeland.