The American legal system has come under fire in recent years, with petty criminals often receiving hefty sentences compared to the rest of the world for the same crimes. One of the most notable issues is the notorious ‘three strikes law’ that is prevalent in a number of states.
In the likes of Missouri, California, and Alabama, citizens can receive a life sentence in prison simply for possessing cannabis, regardless of the quantity or whether it was intended for personal use as opposed to dealing or producing.
The three strikes law was initially implemented in 1994 and served the purpose of drastically increasing the punishment for citizens who were convicted of more than two serious felonies, ranging from petty theft and possession of small quantities of drugs all the way to kidnapping, rape, and murder.
If convicted under the three strikes law, the offender will receive a mandated state prison term of at least 25 years to life.
Under the three strikes system, a small-time criminal could end up with a potential life sentence if they have two prior convictions for other petty crimes. So if a Missouri resident has two arrests on his record for cannabis possession, he is one joint away from being slapped with life in prison.
Meet the men serving life for lighting up
This is exactly what happened to Lee Carroll Brooker, a 75-year-old disabled military veteran who received a life sentence without parole after he was found growing cannabis plants behind his son’s house in Alabama.
Although his intentions were to use it for medicinal purposes as he suffers from multiple chronic ailments, he was handed a life sentence where he will certainly never see the light of day again.
Lee had two previous convictions for robberies over 30 years ago where he held up a series of liquor stores. Despite already serving time for these previous crimes, his cannabis conviction counted as a third strike and was enough for a hefty sentence.
Alarmingly, Lee isn’t alone in this hazy predicament. There are a plethora of cases that have seen people being locked up for the rest of their living days.
California resident Corvain Cooper is another man who may spend the rest of his life in prison due to cannabis offences. He received a life sentence after distributing cannabis across state lines, even though he was never found guilty of a violent crime.
The investigation leading to Cooper’s arrest saw over 50 individuals arrested including the alleged ringleader. However, no one else received a life sentence, and most of the co-conspirators have already been released from prison.
In some cases, those serving life for cannabis-related charges have managed to have the sentences overturned following lengthy legal battles or with help from the public, with petitions being passed around receiving hundreds of signatures.
Jeff Mizanskey experienced the lows and the subsequent highs of being handed a life sentence without parole under Missouri’s three strikes law. After serving over two decades behind bars, he was finally freed.
Mizanskey received a life sentence in 1993 after accompanying his friend in an attempt to buy a few pounds of cannabis from an unknown police informant.
Mizanskey believed he would certainly die in prison as a result of his sentence. This feeling was made worse as he witnessed violent convicted rapists and murderers housed in cells next to him being allowed to walk free throughout his 21-year imprisonment.
In 2015, Jeff was freed from his Missouri prison and faced relatives and reporters wearing a shirt reading ‘I’m Jeff & I’m free’ before stating “I spent a third of my life in prison, it’s a shame” while greeting his infant granddaughter.
Since the nation’s general attitude towards cannabis has seemingly sweetened, and growing and selling cannabis are now legitimate businesses in many states like Colorado and Washington, it seems an injustice to be sentencing people to a lifetime in prison for engaging in the same activities that some are banking on.
Legal status of cannabis
Although cannabis is legal in California, Colorado, and Washington State among others, it is still illegal federally. As a result, just under 50% of all drug arrests in the US are for cannabis-related crimes despite it’s murky legal status.
Some argue that the radical approach of incarcerating a high volume of criminals for non-violent crimes such as weed possession is a huge waste of resources.
As states begin to follow California and Colorado’s approach to cannabis use and possession, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for cannabis to be legalised on a federal level – but what’s more interesting will be what happens to those currently locked away for possession in the past.
How to make the three strikes law fairer
Reports state that more than 60% of people who voted agreed with the three strikes law, however many of them were not fully aware of what it really means or what it officially entails. The law is also considered to be poorly drafted and vastly technical, while it has been suggested that the terms were misrepresented in the initial campaign.
The campaign literature supporting the law outlined that the focus was to lock away repeat rapists, robbers, and murderers for life. It failed to mention that this included sentencing petty thieves and drug users to prison for 25 years to life.
Subsequently, many have come to the realisation that in some cases, the three strikes law is too harsh, along with the fact that it can cost as much as $31,000 to house an inmate per year – or in some cases up to $60,000.
After several proposals to limit the application of the law to cases where the new or third crime is deemed a “serious or violent” crime, a new wave of reforms came about earlier this year to enable less-violent offenders to seek parole or apply for resentencing.
The director of the Stanford Three Strikes Project, Michael Romano, stated that many of those who are authorised to now seek parole include inmates serving life sentences due to “stealing a bicycle, possessing less than half a gram of methamphetamine, stealing two bottles of liquor, or shoplifting shampoo”.
The law also removed second-degree robbery from the list of crimes to be sentenced under the three strike law – a crime defined as theft without use of a weapon or significant injury occurring.