Because of Mississippi’s habitual offender laws, a mother of four is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for possession of less than two ounces of marijuana. 

That is the story of Tameka Drummer, who was regularly cited during attempts at reigning in Mississippi’s habitual offender laws during the past legislative session. Now, there is a new Change.org petition calling for her pardon. 

Read about our recommendations for reforming criminal justice in The High Road to Freedom

In 2008, Drummer was sentenced to life in prison. She was driving without a car tag in Alcorn county, she was pulled over, and the police then searched her car and they found less than two ounces of marijuana. She actually had the tag in her back seat.

But because of this, her youngest child who was just four years old at the time has grown up without a mother. She has now served 12 years of her life sentence.

Why did Drummer receive such an oppressive sentence?

Because of the state’s habitual offender laws that were written to enforce long, and even draconian, sentences on individuals who have prior convictions. The law works in different ways, but in Drummer’s case, she was previously convicted of a violent crime, a drug charge, and then, finally, the marijuana charge that landed her life without parole. 

In the case of Drummer, she paid her debt to society with her past convictions, which is generally what we ask of prisoners. And each time she was convicted, the punishment got more serious while the charges against her tended to get less serious, not more serious. She went from a violent crime at 15 years old to marijuana possession, something that is legal or decriminalized in nearly half the states.

What has this meant to the state’s criminal justice system? A November 2019 analysis found that over 2,600 people have been incarcerated under these statutes. This includes 906 people serving 20 years or more in prison, and 439 people serving life sentences. There are 78 people who are serving life sentences for drug charges alone. 

Taxpayers are spending about $20,000 per year to house Drummer. By the time Drummer is 70, taxpayers would have spent $700,000 on someone who is in prison for less than two ounces of marijuana. Is that a good use of taxpayer money?

Even after a series of criminal justice reforms, Mississippi continues to have the third highest incarceration rate in the world, more than all but two other states and every other industrialized country. At the same time, our state continues to fall behind economically, with a workforce participation rate that is growing at a slower pace than most other states. And more children grow up with just one parent in Mississippi than any other state in the country. This is all related.

Multiple bills that would have impacted habitual offender laws did not make it past the finish line this session and another bill that would have reformed parole for up to 2,000 prisoners was vetoed by Gov. Tate Reeves last month. 

That shouldn’t be the last word. We know much needs to be done.

To help Drummer and others in a similar situation and to combat the state’s stubbornly high incarceration rate and the ever-growing cost to taxpayers, the state should continue to look for measures that reform parole and eliminate the state’s mandatory minimum habitual sentencing structure that imposes disproportionately long prison sentences on individuals, even for minor crimes.

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.