Mississippi Sending A Man To Prison For Life Over An Ounce Of Weed

Mississippi Sending A Man To Prison For Life Over An Ounce Of Weed

Marijuana! It's legal in 16 states now. Ninety-one percent of American adults think it should be legal for either recreational or medical use, or both. The number of people who think people should be spending ridiculous amounts of time in prison for possession of marijuana is now vanishingly small.

And yet. In Mississippi on Tuesday, an appeals court held up a life sentence for a man who had been caught in 2017 with an ounce of weed on him. It should probably not surprise you to hear that this happened in Mississippi. Or that Allen Russell, the 38-year-old man who is now going to spend at least the next 10 years (if he gets paroled for good behavior) of his life in prison, is Black.

You see, Mississippi has a three strikes law, and Russell was convicted over a decade earlier in 2004 of two home burglaries of the same house, days apart — for which he was given two concurrent 15-year sentences and served eight and a half. In 2015 he pleaded guilty to illegal possession of a firearm. While the home burglaries would not have counted towards any habitual offender statutes in the state in 2004, in 2014 the law changed to deem all burglaries — whether or not they actually involved any kind of actual violence — as "violent crimes." Two "violent felonies" plus a marijuana conviction a decade later, and he gets life in prison.

Via AP:

In his appeal, Russell argued that a life sentence constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment and is grossly disproportionate" to his crime of marijuana possession.

The Court of Appeals disagreed in its majority opinion, stating that Russell's life sentence is in accordance with Mississippi law. Russell is not being sentenced solely for having marijuana, but for being a habitual offender, the judges said.

But several dissenting judges argued that the court can — and should — make exceptions.

"The purpose of the criminal justice system is to punish those who break the law, deter them from making similar mistakes, and give them the opportunity to become productive members of society," Judge Latrice Westbrooks wrote. "The fact that judges are not routinely given the ability to exercise discretion in sentencing all habitual offenders is completely at odds with this goal."

You think?

What, exactly, is putting Allen Russell in prison doing for anybody? What is the purpose? Is anyone being protected? Do they expect this to have some positive effect on Russell's life, which they are now taking away from him?

It does not make sense from any possible perspective to just have a "Well, that's just what we do!" attitude, re: criminal justice. Do they think this is going to help Russell? That's doubtful. Do they think anyone is being protected by him being in prison and not ... walking the streets with one ounce of marijuana?

Obviously not.

The people of Mississippi are going to have to pay actual money to keep this man behind pars for decades, possibly. It will cost them $18,000 a year — nearly double the amount allocated to educate a child in the state. Absurdly disproportionate sentencing aside, it seems difficult to argue that keeping a guy who had some pot on him behind bars is worth $18,000 a year or $180,000 for 10 years. Surely, they could be doing some better things with that money, like doing something about their ridiculously high maternal mortality rate. Or perhaps spending more money on education given that their schools are continually ranked among the worst in the country. The state has the second highest prison population in the country per capita and citizens pay billions of dollars to keep that going. Because godforbid there might be a Black person walking around with an ounce of marijuana on them.

Putting someone in prison for life means taking their life away from them. There is obviously a difference between someone who murders three people and someone who robbed a house over a decade ago and then has some pot on them, and for the law to not treat them differently is cruel, and should be a hell of a lot more unusual than it is.


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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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