JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a life sentence for a man convicted of a marijuana possession charge because he had previous convictions and those made him a habitual offender.
Allen Russell, 38, was sentenced to life in Forrest County in 2019 after a jury found him guilty of possession of more than 30 grams (1.05 ounces) of marijuana.
In Mississippi, a person can be sentenced to life without parole after serving at least one year in prison on two separate felonies, one of which must be a violent offense. Russell was convicted on two home burglaries in 2004 and for unlawful possession of a firearm in 2015.
By law, burglary is a violent offense in Mississippi, whether or not there is proof that violence occurred.
That was not the case when Russell was sentenced for home burglary in 2004. Then, burglary was only considered a violent crime if there was proof of violence. The law changed in 2014.
In his appeal, Russell argued that a life sentence constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment and is grossly disproportionate” to his crime of marijuana possession.
The Court of Appeals disagreed in its majority opinion, stating that Russell’s life sentence is in accordance with Mississippi law. Russell is not being sentenced solely for having marijuana, but for being a habitual offender, the judges said.
But several dissenting judges argued that the court can — and should — make exceptions.
“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,” Judge Latrice Westbrooks wrote. “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.”
Russell was given two concurrent 15-year sentences after pleading guilty to burglary in April 2004. The charging documents in those cases indicate the two burglaries involved the same house and occurred two days apart.
He served a little more than eight and a half years, and was released from prison in February 2014.
Russell pleaded guilty to possession of a weapon as a convicted felon in October 2015. He was sentenced to 10 years but was only required to serve two.
He was then arrested on November 29, 2017, for possessing marijuana. Under Mississippi law, possession of between 30 and 250 grams (1.05 and 8.8 ounces) of marijuana can carry a punishment of up to three years in prison, a $3,000 fine, or both.
Russell was found with five bags of a leafy green substance. Two of the bags, weighing around 44 grams (1.55 ounces), were tested by a lab and confirmed to be marijuana.
Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed a criminal justice bill into law that expands parole eligibility for some people, but not habitual offenders. Senate Bill 2795 will become law July 1.
Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.