A gang bill in the Mississippi Senate is intended to combat the rise of gangs in the state’s penitentiaries but could cost taxpayers billions by increasing the state’s prison population after several years of decline.

Senate Bill 2459 — sponsored by state Sen. Brice Wiggins (R-Pascagoula) — would add additional penalties for felonies (up to 15 years in prison and/or a fine of between $10,000 and $15,000) committed as part of a gang on top of the original sentence. It would also render those convicted of being in a gang as ineligible for parole and earned time. Wiggins’ bill also would make criminal gang activity a violent crime even if the underlying offense committed is non-violent. 

Also, the burden of proof for convicting one of criminal gang activity would be a preponderance of evidence, a lower evidentiary standard that is used in civil court. This is below the standard required for criminal court, which is beyond a reasonable doubt.

With that kind of language in the bill, the number of those considered gang members under the law would increase, swelling the prison population along with longer sentences. Using data from the Mississippi Department of Corrections at a cost of $39.91 per day to house each inmate, each 15-year sentence for gang-related felonies would cost between $44,000 and $218,000 per prisoner. If the 11,917 state prisoners that the MDOC identified as gang members had been sentenced under the language in Wiggins’ bill, the state could’ve added up to $2.6 billion in additional costs.

Passage of SB 2459 will also undo many of the criminal justice reform efforts that have lowered the number of those incarcerated while cutting the amount spent by taxpayers on corrections.

In January 2014, before the passage of House Bill 585, the state’s inmate population was 22,008. Violent offenders made up 34.7 percent (7,632 inmates) of the prison population. As of January 2020, the state’s prison population is 19,057 and violent offenders (9,410) represent 49.38 percent of it. That still ranks Mississippi the third highest nationally, trailing only Louisiana and Oklahoma.

According to testimony given by Chief Justice Mike Randolph to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, taxpayers have saved $452 million in incarceration costs since the passage of HB 585 in 2014.

A similar bill in the House, HB 816, will likely die without making it out of committee. State Rep. Fred Shanks (R-Brandon) authored the House version.

Another problem with SB 2459 is there is already existing law governing gangs on the books in the Magnolia State.

The Mississippi Street Gang Act was passed in 1997 and allows the state Attorney General, district attorneys, or a county attorney to bring a civil case against any gang (defined as three or more persons with an established hierarchy that engages in felonious criminal activity). 

The existing law also proscribes that anyone convicted a felony committed for, directed by or in association with a criminal street gang would be imprisoned for no less than one year and no more than one half of the maximum imprisonment term for that offense.

Those selling or buying goods or performing services for a gang could face the same punishment as above and an a possible fine of up to $10,000.