Who would have ever thought you could get a life sentence for simple possession of marijuana? If you’ve been convicted of certain prior felonies, four states mandate a life sentence enhancement without the opportunity of parole for possessing marijuana, even in small amounts.
Lee Carroll Brooker, a 75-year-old Alabama resident currently serving a life without parole sentence, was convicted under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act for growing about three dozen marijuana plants in his son’s backyard.
Brooker has multiple chronic ailments and had absolutely no intention of selling the marijuana. Prosecutors conceded the fact that the plants were for Brooker’s own personal medicinal purposes, but despite that fact, Brooker was still charged and convicted.
Brooker’s prior felonies consisted of a slew of robberies, all of which he served a total of 10 years in prison for those crimes. Although the sentencing judge wished he could offer a different sentence, the judge had no choice but to impose a life sentence. Alabama law mandates a life sentences in case histories like Brookers.
Brooker filed a Writ of Certiorari to the Alabama Supreme Court asking the Court to consider whether his sentence violated the 8th Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause. The Court ultimate denied Brooker’s request to review the case. Chief Justice Roy Moore concurred with the Court’s decision, but wrote separately expressing that he believed Brooker’s sentence was “excessive and unjustified” and that sentencing judges should have discretion to choose a lesser sentence.
Referencing the life imprisonment sentencing law, Justice Moore further wrote, “I urge the legislature to revisit that statutory sentencing scheme to determine whether it serves an appropriate purpose.” The U.S. Supreme Court also denied to review Brooker’s appeal, leaving him to spend out the rest of his days in prison.
Is Brooker’s Punishment Cruel and Unusual?
How in the world is that justified that a person can serve 10 years for robbery, but a life sentence for simple possession of marijuana? Even more so when you consider the fact that Brooker’s plants weighed in at a grand total of 2.8 pounds…including unusable parts like stalks and leaves. Alabama law mandates a life sentence for 2.2 pounds or more. That’s less than a half-pound difference that got Brooker a life sentence. Oh, and don’t forget marijuana is now legal in 24 states and D.C. for medicinal use and 4 states for recreational use.
Brooker was allowed to remain free and out of jail after his conviction while he awaited sentencing, so he was clearly not a threat to society. Brooker received a punishment that’s typically given to an offender that’s committed a violent crime.
Life sentences, according to the Bureau, are rare with a whopping 1% of total prison sentences. The U.S. Department of Justice released statistics reporting that in the year 2000, the average sentence length in state courts for murder was nearly 20 years and 8 months.
That’s right—Brooker received a longer sentence than a murderer simply because he had prior felony convictions. Among the 8,600 persons convicted of murder or non-negligent manslaughter, only 23.3% were sentenced to life in prison.
To top off those statistics, federal law mandates a minimum sentencing of 3 years for possession of marijuana and that’s only after a 3rd offense. Under federal law, a person would have to cultivate at least 1000 plants before a life sentence would even be an option and the minimum sentence is only 10 years. Brooker had roughly 36 plants. This means under federal law, a sentencing judge has the option to choose a mere 10-year sentence, the minimum, for growing 1000 plants and is not required to direct a life sentence. The same goes for selling 1000 kg or more of marijuana.
Most states mandate a maximum sentence of five years for possession of less than three pounds of marijuana.
When Would a Life Sentence Be Justified For a Non-Violent Drug Crime?
In terms of severity, life without parole is the second worst punishment an offender can get. The first is the death penalty. Mandatory life sentences shouldn’t exist for any crime and in no instance should a life sentence be warranted for possession of marijuana.
Even in states that don’t have the life sentence enhancement for habitual offenders, some still have three-strikes laws that can send someone away for life. It doesn’t seem justifiable to sentence someone to die in prison for simple possession of marijuana. Currently, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Oklahoma all sentence nonviolent offenders to life without parole for nonviolent crimes. Mississippi alone requires life sentences for being convicted of possession for barely one ounce of marijuana.
Mandatory death sentences and mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles have already been banned. The Supreme Court did so on the basis that the 8th Amendment must adapt to “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” With the ever-changing views of marijuana and as more states begin to legalize, the court may be forced to review the issue in the future and in turn, force legislatures to change their minimum sentencing standards.