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 study released a couple years ago ranked Mississippi as the most corrupt state based on the number of federal corruption convictions.

Each year, there is some kind of state corruption ranking, but I don’t tend to pay much attention to these because Mississippi is frequently ranked at or near the worst in national statistics.

As a longtime Mississippi journalist, I can remember a lot of corruption cases in the state, including the FBI’s infamous Operation Pretense in the mid-1980s, which led to the prosecutions of 57 Mississippi county supervisors.

The recent corruption case of former Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps is one of largest in the state’s history. Epps was sentenced in May to 19 years in federal prison. U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate called it one of the largest graft cases in the state’s history in sentencing Epps to more than the 13 years recommended by federal prosecutors.

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From large to small, Mississippi had had its share of corruption cases and from recent charges it doesn’t seem to be waning. Consider this sampling of recent cases:

•  A former Ecru police chief and city clerk have been arrested and charged with embezzlement for allegedly stealing money used to buy guns. The state auditor has issued a demand to repay $393,000.

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• Three former Wayne County school employees are accused of faking painting invoices in an alleged scheme to allow a superintendent to repay a personal debt.

• A former Jackson police officer has been indicted for allegedly taking more than $1,000 in fuel for personal use.

I’m making no comment on the innocence or guilt of those charged. But it is disheartening to see public officials accused, and, in many cases, convicted of robbing taxpayers of Mississippi.

A former federal correctional officer at the prison in Yazoo County was sentenced to a year in prison for accepting $10,000 in bribes to smuggle tobacco to inmates inside the facility.

I don’t know if white collar crime is more prevalent today, but there is no shortage of cases.

These officials and individuals placed in a position of trust deserve the harshest sentence possible. It’s great that these people, in most cases, are finally apprehended, but think of the harm they have done by stealing taxpayers’ money.

I hope judges will take in account the damage done by individuals who steal from taxpayers. In my opinion, they deserve a harsher sentence than the petty criminal who steals from a business.

It seems it is becoming more difficult to find public servants who are doing the right thing. I have heard lawmakers talk about wanting to prevent fraud in government programs, but the legislation is often aimed at low-income people and relatively low rates of fraud, not major malfeasance.

I have seen petty criminals sentenced to life in prison as habitual offenders for crimes including stealing a pickup.

I’m not saying the white-collar criminals should be sentenced to life in prison, but their sentences should send a strong message that stealing from taxpayers is at least as bad as stealing from anyone else. It shouldn’t be tolerated with probation or slap on the wrist.

Jimmie Gates   can be contacted at 601-961-7212 or jgates@gannett.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter

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