Pubdate: Thu, 14 Apr 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company


Lee Carroll Brooker, a 75-year-old disabled veteran suffering from 
chronic pain, was arrested in July 2011 for growing three dozen 
marijuana plants for his own medicinal use behind his son's house in 
Dothan, Ala., where he lived. For this crime, Mr. Brooker was given a 
life sentence with no possibility of release.

Alabama law mandates that anyone with certain prior felony 
convictions be sentenced to life without parole for possessing more 
than 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of marijuana, regardless of intent to 
sell. Mr. Brooker had been convicted of armed robberies in Florida 
two decades earlier, for which he served 10 years. The marijuana 
plants collected at his son's house - including unusable parts like 
vines and stalks - weighed 2.8 pounds.

At his sentencing, the trial judge told Mr. Brooker that if he "could 
sentence you to a term that is less than life without parole, I 
would." Last year, Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme 
Court, called Mr. Brooker's sentence "excessive and unjustified," and 
said it revealed "grave flaws" in the state's sentencing laws, but 
the court still upheld the punishment.

On Friday, the United States Supreme Court will consider whether to 
hear Mr. Brooker's challenge to his sentence, which he argues 
violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. 
The justices should take the case and overturn this sentence.

Life without parole, second only to the death penalty in severity, 
should never be a mandatory sentence for any crime, much less for 
simple possession of marijuana, which is not even a crime in many 
parts of the country. If this punishment is ever meted out, it should 
be by a judge who has carefully weighed the individual circumstances of a case.

Besides Alabama, only South Dakota, Louisiana and Mississippi have 
such laws; in Mississippi, possession of barely one ounce of 
marijuana is enough to trigger a mandatory sentence of life without 
parole for someone with prior convictions for certain felonies. 
Almost everywhere else, public attitudes and policy toward drugs in 
general, and marijuana in particular, have changed significantly. 
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized 
medical marijuana, and four states, along with D.C., have fully 
legalized its possession for recreational use. In most states, the 
maximum sentence for possessing less than three pounds of marijuana 
is at most five years.

In other words, Mr. Brooker's punishment for marijuana possession is 
the definition of cruel and unusual. He received a punishment 
typically reserved for the most violent crimes, like murder, rape and 
terrorism, even though he poses no threat to society. The trial court 
even allowed him to remain free while he awaited his sentencing.

In 1991, the Supreme Court upheld a state law that mandated life 
without parole for possession of less than one and a half pounds of 
cocaine. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who concurred in that opinion, has 
since spoken out on the scourge of mandatory minimum sentences, which 
he said are often "unwise and unjust," and represent a "misguided" 
transfer of power from judges to prosecutors.

The court has already banned mandatory death sentences and mandatory 
life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, both on the grounds that 
the Eighth Amendment must adapt to the "evolving standards of decency 
that mark the progress of a maturing society." By that standard, and 
given rapidly evolving public opinion on marijuana, no one should be 
sent to prison forever for possessing a small amount of marijuana for 
medical or personal use.
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