UPDATED: 5:45 p.m. June 22, 2022
Originally published: May 14, 2021
ABlack man serving life in prison stemming from a marijuana conviction had his sentence upheld last week by Mississippi‘s top court in a ruling that had to do more with his criminal past than the crime for which he was imprisoned.
Last Thursday, “the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that Allen Russell’s life sentence was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment and was in line with state statute,” the local news outlet KPLC reported. The ruling eliminates the possibility of parole for Russell.
It was the latest sign that the failed war on drugs is still going strong amid a growing legalization movement that has made recreational use of the drug permittable in an increasing number of states.
The state’s Supreme Court decision about Russell came more than a year after the Mississippi Court of Appeals denied Russell’s appeal in part because he is a “habitual offender,” a classification that eliminates any judicial discretion and guarantees harsher sentences for people who have previously been convicted multiple times — even if the most recent offense is nonviolent.
Similar to the notorious, so-called “three strikes” laws sprinkled around the country, “habitual offender” laws have been widely criticized by people working toward reforming the criminal justice system.
In Russell’s case, he was found guilty in 2019 of being in possession of more than 30 grams of marijuana, which is slightly more than one ounce. That was after he had previously been separately convicted of two home burglary charges and unlawful possession of a firearm, spending more than a decade behind bars in total.
One of the judges who dissented in the appeals court ruling is a Black woman who wrote in her opinion that the decision to uphold Russell’s life sentence undermines the true duty of the court.
“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,” Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge Latrice Westbrooks wrote in her dissenting opinion. “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.”
The Mississippi Clarion-Ledger reported in 2020 that there were 86 “habitual offenders” serving life without parole because of convictions for nonviolent crimes, like Russell.
Those types of convictions, critics say, lead to the criminal justice system being backlogged with cases and a prison system that continues to experience overcrowding with no end in sight.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has expressed similar sentiments in the past about “habitual offender” laws in other states.
“America is the world’s largest incarcerator, but our addiction to incarceration is doing little to make Americans safer,” Rachel Myers wrote for the ACLU in 2011 with nearly prophetic words that still resonate today. “Especially in the face of economic crisis, our government should invest in alternatives to incarceration and make prisons options of last — not first — resort.”
Derek Harris knows that truth first-hand. The Louisiana man was given life in prison for less than $30 of marijuana and served a nearly decade behind bars before he was released due to time served.
Harris, a military veteran, was arrested back in 2008 in Abbeville, Louisiana, after selling .69 grams of marijuana to an officer. At first, he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, in 2012, he was re-sentenced to life in prison under the Habitual Offender Law, which allows judges to give updated sentences to those who have previous convictions on their record.
“Louisiana’s habitual offender law is abused, misused and ineffective,” Jamila Johnson, a senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, explained in 2019.
“People suffering from addiction, mental illness, and poverty can find themselves in prison for decades for something as minor as stealing $14.”