Despite new state law, dozens imprisoned in Mississippi for nonviolent acts will never get paroled

Published 8:51 am Wednesday, June 30, 2021

By Tyler Wann
Mississippi Center For Investigative Reporting

Convicted of second degree murder, third degree murder and manslaughter in the slaying of George Floyd, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin could be released on parole in 15 years.

In Mississippi, Tameka Drummer went to prison in 2008 for possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana but will never see life beyond bars, despite a new state parole eligibility law going into effect Thursday.

Up to 3,000 Mississippi inmates over the next three to five years will be eligible for release under the state’s Earned Parole Eligibility Act.

But Drummer and more than 80 others convicted of nonviolent crimes but sentenced to life without parole will not be among them. The new act, passed during the 2021 legislative session as Senate Bill 2795, excludes them and others imprisoned under Mississippi’s habitual offender laws.

Corinth police found less than 2 ounces of marijuana on Drummer, originally from Tennessee, during a traffic stop in 2006.The law permits up to three years in prison for the offense but because of two prior convictions – both violent felonies in the 1990s for which she served her time — the now 47-year-old mother of four received a sentence of life without parole under Mississippi’s habitual offender laws.

“They’re just devastating, devastating laws that have left so many people in prison for far too long, and even for life, for really minor offenses,” said Laura Bennett, manager of Research for Criminal Justice Reform for advocacy group FWD.us.

Mississippi has two habitual laws, often referred to as the “little habitual law” and the “big habitual law,” said Bennett. The “little” law ensures someone with two prior convictions will serve the maximum possible sentence for their third felony.

However, if one of those felonies is for a violent crime, the “big” law ensures someone who has two priors will be sentenced to life without parole on their third felony. The third felony doesn’t have to be violent; Bennett gave examples of people being locked up for life for drug crimes or shoplifting.

Drummer had previously been convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 1992 and aggravated assault in 1998. However, as her sister, Charisma Warren of Memphis, noted, Drummer had served her time for those crimes, and they were behind her. She said Drummer is the kind of person who took care of her kids and family. Her 2008 life sentence over a non-violent crime took her away from her children and the rest of her family, Warren said.

“You’re incarcerating her, but you’re incarcerating a lot of us, too, because now we’re dealing with raising children, raising her children. We’re dealing with having to go to Mississippi and take care of her down there,” Warren said.

In a statement on social media, Gov. Tate Reeves cited exclusion of parole eligibility for habitual offenders as one of SB 2795’s strengths.

“This bill expands parole eligibility for some — but it does not guarantee it!” he wrote. “And not all are eligible — we were able to ensure 1st and 2nd degree murderers can’t get it. … Maybe best of all, habitual offenders are not included in this bill.”

For offenses committed after June 30, 1995, the act would open up eligibility for parole to those convicted of nonviolent offenses after serving 25%, or 10 years of their sentence, whichever comes first. Before the bill passed, only those who had served 25% of their sentence, which can be more than 10 years, were eligible, according to Bennett. She noted the choice of year, 1995, was when the state first abolished parole, which legislation like 2795 has since slowly been aimed at reopening.

Likewise, for those convicted of violent crimes, they would be eligible after either serving 50% of their sentence or 20 years; for robbery with a deadly weapon, drive-by shooting, or a carjacking, that goes up to 60% or 25 years. Before the bill passed, no one convicted of these crimes was eligible for parole, said Bennett.

The bill also largely excludes those convicted of sex offenses, murder, capital offenses, human trafficking, drug trafficking and any other offenses specifically prohibiting parole relief.

Under a House bill introduced last session, priors that were more than 15 years old would not have been counted in habitual sentencing under the “little” law, and the bill would have prevented someone from a life without parole sentence for a nonviolent crime under the “big” law, Bennett said. The bill also would have opened up parole to some who were previously sentenced under the habitual offender laws.

Reeves vetoed a similar reform Senate bill last year. Sen. Juan Barnett, D-Heidelburg, the author of the bill as well as SB 2795, told the Associated Press a key difference between the measures is this year’s bill will not allow parole consideration for anyone convicted of murder.

“We know that long sentences with no ability to earn parole or any type of release is devastating for people, it’s devastating for their families,” Bennett said. “We’ve spoken to people across the state who are just desperate to get their loved ones home, especially at a time when Mississippi’s prisons have become very, very dangerous, and even more dangerous now that COVID has been spreading behind bars.”

Early last year, the Justice Department launched an investigation into Mississippi prisons after numerous inmate deaths. An April 23 report by the state’s Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review on the Mississippi Department of Corrections found inmate-on-inmate assaults rose from 663 to 853 between the 2019 and 2020 budget years – a 29% increase.

“A lot of people talked about it like it was an … automatic release bill, and it is not,” said Bennett. “This bill makes people eligible for a parole hearing. They will go in front of the Parole Board, which is appointed by the governor, and the Parole Board will make the final decision. And there’s also mountains of evidence now showing that opportunities like parole, like earned time that give people, you know, hope and incentives to participate in programs actually reduce recidivism and make us all safer.”

The recent PEER report found the recidivism rate has been growing in Mississippi. The percentage of prisoners re-incarcerated within 36-months exceeded 30% from FY 2016 to FY 2020, with a low of 31% in FY 2017 and high of 37.4% in FY 2020.

Conservative nonprofit advocacy group Empower Mississippi celebrated the signing of the bill, with President Russ Latino saying in a statement posted to its website that signing the bill into law “should be seen as a signal to the Department of Justice that we are prepared to get our own house in order, without costly federal intervention. This is a smart on crime, soft on taxpayer conservative reform.”

Mississippi has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country. Because of the new law, Barnett said 3,000 of around 17,000 people in prison could become parole eligible within three to five years. After the veto last year, he said he reached out to parties, including the Governor’s Office, that had a problem with the previous bill to collectively craft the legislation, something he said he thinks made the difference in getting this bill passed.

Although there was a lot of compromise in SB 2795, the legislation is good for the state, Barnett said.

“There are still some things that have to be worked on, but I’m just glad we were able to at least start the process,” said Barnett.

He said he’ll continue to sit down with stakeholders to craft future legislation.

Asked about the governor’s thoughts towards reforming habitual offender laws, press secretary Bailey Martin wrote in a June 11 email, “Governor Reeves believes that Mississippi should focus on a full, multi-year implementation of the criminal justice reforms passed in 2014 and 2021 before any additional legislation regarding habitual offenders is considered.”

She said he also believes the priority and focus should be on his efforts, which Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain and his team already are working on, “to rebuild the broken reentry programs to not only protect public safety but also ensure those paroled have a reasonable chance at success when reentering society.”

“Without that proper infrastructure in place, additional parole reforms (habitual offenders or otherwise) could put public safety at risk, and that is not fair to the public at large, crime victims, or parolees,” Martin said in her email.

Steven Randle, director of Justice and Work with Empower Mississippi, said addressing habitual offender law reform is important, and he plans on working with lawmakers and advocacy groups in the future to see what the next steps will be.

“Because we want to make sure that people are not sentenced to life and virtual life sentences for nonviolent issues. And we want to make sure that something that happened 15 years prior does not cost you your life for another nonviolent issue,” he said.

Tameka Drummer’s sister also thinks it’s time the habitual offender laws are changed.

“I just feel like it’s just time for them to re-evaluate and figure out something else they could do,” Warren said. “She (Drummer) could have had probation and been home by now.”

A petition posted on Change.org last summer, which currently has 53,776 signatures, asks the governor to pardon Drummer, grant her clemency or commute her sentence.

“You have the awesome power to give Tameka and her family their life back. Give a mother the chance to hold her child again,” the petition reads.

The Mississippi Center for Public Policy – a conservative, limited government advocacy group —  also wrote of Drummer last summer that “At the end of the day, we are not safer because Drummer is in prison for the rest of her life, her children are not better off by being raised by someone other than their mother, and taxpayer money could certainly be better invested in something else.”

Reeves said at a news conference last summer that he wasn’t considering a pardon for Drummer and didn’t “know all the facts of the case.”

Asked if there were any updates on his position, Martin responded in her June 11 email that “to my knowledge, Governor Reeves is not considering any pardons at this time.”

Warren doesn’t understand why her sister is still in prison:

“You have rehabilitated her. … Her belief is better, her religion is better. You have done that. And at some point, why not let her go home?”

 

This story was produced by the nonprofit Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Email Tyler Wann at twann007@gmail.com