A Mississippi man will spend life in prison for possessing an ounce-and-a-half of marijuana because of the state’s strict sentencing law.
Allen Russell, 38, was sentenced to life without parole in 2019, after being found guilty of having 1.54 ounces of marijuana. The simple possession charge would typically lead to a three-year sentence. However, prosecutors opted to enhance Russell’s charges because of his criminal record.
Legal experts said although Russell’s punishment is harsh, it is not unprecedented in Mississippi and most other states with habitual offender laws.
“That’s the travesty of it all,” Matt Steffey, a Mississippi College law professor, told Atlanta Black Star. “This to me is a familiar story that’s no less shocking and horrible just because it’s familiar to the point of almost being routine.”
The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that the criminal court judge “followed the letter of the law” in his sentencing. Russell is one of several Black men that habitual offender laws disproportionately have impacted.
Under Mississippi’s statute, any person with two previous felony convictions, where at least one of those offenses is violent, can be sentenced to life in prison without parole if they are convicted of a third felony.
Russell previously had been convicted of two separate charges of house burglary and one charge of being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm, according to reports.
Although Black men make up 13 percent of Mississippi’s population, FWD.us data shows 75 percent of the people in Mississippi’s prisons on habitual sentences over 20 years are Black men.
Reports show that about 43 states and the District of Columbia have some version of a habitual offender statute. Many were motivated by Ronald Reagan’s “tough on crime” campaign.
The statutes often allow prosecutors to pursue an enhanced charge on any offense, commonly known as the “three strikes” rule. Russell accused prosecutors of violating his Eighth Amendment right to be free from “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Proponents of the habitual offender statutes say they crack down on crime and keep career criminals off the streets. Critics argue that they do not deter criminals from crime, and they over-criminalize Black Americans and overcrowd prisons.
“People don’t decide not to do some sort of unlawful behavior, be it sell drugs or do something violent because they read the statute and they know ‘Oh, it’s the second time now I’m gonna get 10 years or 20 years,’ ” Marta Nelson, director of government strategy at the Vera Institute of Justice, told Atlanta Black Star.
Louisiana changed its habitual offender law in 2021, to stop people convicted of nonviolent offenses from being subjected to its habitual felon law that pinned them with a life sentence after four felony offenses.
Retired Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson said the law was “largely designed to re-enslave African Americans.”
California voters elected to remove nonviolent offenses from its habitual offender law in 2012, after being notorious for its three-strike rule.
In 2003, in Ewing v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state’s decision to sentence Gary Ewing to 25 years to life for stealing three golf clubs from a Los Angeles-area golf course while he was on parole. Ewing had served nine years in prison for three burglaries and one robbery. He also argued that the state violated his Eighth Amendment rights.
Russell and his attorneys argued that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Jerry Helm’s conviction in its 1983 ruling for Solem v. Helm.
The South Dakota man received life in prison without parole for writing a bad check. It was his seventh felony, but the Mississippi Supreme Court contended in its June 16 decision that Helm was not a violent offender.
Steffey said Mississippi does not have the harshest habitual felon law among the states. Still, the state has the third-highest incarceration rate in the country. It follows behind Louisiana and Oklahoma, Bureau of Justice Statistics show.
The six state supreme justices who upheld Russell’s life sentence, which led to a deadlock in the appellate court, contended that he was a violent offender.
“It is pertinent to note that the arrest came while law enforcement was attempting to serve another drug-related warrant on Russell as well as execute a search warrant on his premises,” justices wrote of the man’s marijuana arrest. “Chemical gas had to be deployed to obtain Russell’s surrender.”
However, the dissenting judges argued burglary was only considered a violent crime without an actual act of violence after July 1, 2014, and there was no proof that Russell was violent during the burglaries.
Russell also participated in a state program that catered to nonviolent offenders after he was convicted on the burglary charges, they noted.
All of the justices agreed on current reforms to marijuana laws.
“Mississippi joined many of its sister states in adopting a medical marijuana program,” the dissenting judges wrote. “Pursuant to the bill creating the program, the difference going forward between going to jail for possessing 2.5 ounces of marijuana and owning it legally would be a prescription.”
Steffey said the state needs to revisit and revise the statute.
There has been some movement in Mississippi’s Legislature to reform habitual offender laws, but the appetite for change has not been big enough to modify the law.
“What is unfortunate are laws that put such a presumption against a person that they run afoul of the law and one more way relatively small, and they’re locked away forever, for the rest of their lives,” Steffey said. “It’s the death penalty on the installment plan—being sent to prison with no hope of release.”
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