By JESSE WEGMAN date published APRIL 19, 2016
It is pretty hard to make a straight-faced case in support of a mandatory sentence of life without parole for simple possession of marijuana.
Unfortunately, such sentences will continue to be legal for now, following the Supreme Court’s refusal on Monday to hear the appeal of Lee Carroll Brooker, a 75-year-old disabled veteran currently serving a mandatory life without parole sentence in Alabama. His crime? Growing about three dozen marijuana plants behind his son’s house in Dothan. He said the plants were for his own medicinal use only — he suffers from multiple chronic ailments — and prosecutors did not dispute that.
Remarkably, they didn’t have to. Alabama, like three other states, mandates a life without parole sentence for simple possession of small amounts of marijuana by people with certain prior felony convictions — and Mr. Brooker had been convicted of a string of robberies twenty years earlier in Florida, crimes for which he served 10 years in prison. In such a case, the law doesn’t require prosecutors to prove any intent to sell the drug.
In Mississippi, 30 grams — barely one ounce — is enough to send someone to prison for the rest of his or her life, with no chance of release. Alabama’s cutoff is slightly higher, at one kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, but that makes no more sense, and was no help to Mr. Brooker, whose plants weighed in at 2.8 pounds, including unusable parts like stalks and leaves.
Mr. Brooker’s sentencing judge said he would have imposed a shorter sentence if he could have, and Roy Moore, the state’s chief justice, called Mr. Brooker’s sentence “excessive and unjustified.” (It’s worth noting that while the sentence was mandatory, the prosecutor was not required to bring the precise charges that triggered it. Prosecutorial discretion here, as in most cases, is a central factor in determining what punishment defendants face.)
The Supreme Court has shown itself to be more willing in recent years to prohibit the harshest sentences under the Eighth Amendment “evolving standards of decency” framework, which considers how Americans’ views of crime and punishment have changed over time. In the case of marijuana, the possession of which isn’t even a crime in many parts of the country, the nation’s attitudes have changed dramatically: Most Americans now support legalizing marijuana.
Still, with one exception — juveniles — mandatory life without parole sentences have survived. Mandatory life without parole should never be permitted, and certainly not in this case. By any reasonable modern measure, imposing the second most severe punishment in the American justice system for such a minor crime as marijuana possession violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments.