Reader Ken sent me this article from the Associated Press (click on screenshot) which shows how brutally insensitive the prison system is in America—at least in Mississippi and other “three strikes” states. Those are states in which, if you’re convicted of three successive felonies (one of which in Mississippi must be a “violent offense”), they lock you up for life and throw away the key. You’ll leave prison only in a box. You cannot get probation, and the governor cannot parole you.
It recounts the story of Allen Russell, aged 38, who received his third felony conviction for possessing between 44 and 80 grams of marijuana—more than 30 grams, an ounce—is a felony). Before that, Russell served 8 years for two home burglaries and was released from prison in 2014. This was not a violent offense, though now all burglaries are considered “violent offenses.”. Then felony #2: Russell was found in possession of a weapon as a convicted felon. For that he served two years.
Finally, on November 29, 2017, Russell was arrested for carrying somewhere between 44 and 80 grams of marijuana, which is a felony since the amount exceeded 30 grams.
Under state law, Russell was then sentenced, after the third “strike”, to life in prison without possibility of parole. He appealed the sentence, saying that it was “cruel and unusual punishment and is grossly disproportionate” to possessing a smallish amount of marijuana.
But in their opinion, which you can find here, the court appears to have been split 4-3), they majority said that he wasn’t being sentenced for the marijuana alone, but because he was a “habitutal offender,” and thus subject to Mississippi law, which remains in force.
Here’s a bit of the majority opinion (my emphasis):
The jury convicted Russell of possession of marijuana in an amount greater than 30 grams but less than 250 grams. During the sentencing hearing, the State presented evidence of Russell’s prior felony convictions. In April 2004, Russell pled guilty to two separate charges of burglary of a dwelling and received two concurrent fifteen-year sentences in MDOC’s custody. The State presented evidence that Russell served eight years, seven months, and three days on each charge for burglary of a dwelling before being released from prison in February 2014. In October 2015, Russell then pled guilty to possession of a weapon by a convicted felon and received a ten-year sentence in MDOC’s custody, with two years to serve, eight years suspended, and five years of post-release supervision. Based on the State’s proof of Russell’s two prior felony convictions, the circuit court found Russell to be a violent habitual offender and sentenced him to life imprisonment without eligibility for probation or parole. Russell unsuccessfully moved for a new trial or, alternatively, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Aggrieved, Russell appeals.
Now in what world should a 38 year old man be locked up for life for two burglaries committed at the same time, possession of an illegal firearm, and a smallish amount of marijuana? Is there no possibility of rehabilitation? It’s not like Russell committed three murders, rapes, or armed robberies. He burgled two houses without violence, had possession of an illegal firearm that he didn’t use in another instance, and then was found with a few bags of marijuana. For that he deserves to rot in jail forever?
From the minority opinion:
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. 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. Additionally, “[t]he discharge of judicial duties requires consideration, deliberation[,] and thoughtful use of the broad discretion given judges under the laws of this State.” White v. State, 742 So. 2d 1126, 1137 (¶44) (Miss. 1999). In instances such as these, the duty of the judiciary, as an independent branch of government, is frustrated because courts are not allowed to take the facts and circumstances surrounding a habitual offender’s prior offenses into account at sentencing. In cases like Russell’s any discretion really lies with the prosecution rather than the judiciary. Once an offender is charged and convicted as a habitual offender, courts have no option but to “rubber stamp” the decision by sentencing an 20 offender under section 99-19-83 instead ofsection 99-19-81.10 In fact, situations like the one currently before us are a prime example of why many people have called for criminal justice reform with regard to sentencing.
I’m not sure how many states have a “three-strikes-you’re-out” policy, but even one is too many.