A Life Sentence for a Non-Violent Drug Crime?

So-called “three strikes” laws or habitual offender statutes have been around for a long time.  The purpose of these laws is to keep career criminals off the streets.  Basically, anyone who is convicted of three felonies will face a long prison sentence – anywhere from 15 years to life depending on the state.  But, what happens when a non-violent crime leads to a life sentence?

A life sentence for drug possession?

Many argue that imposing a life sentence for a drug possession conviction, for example, is simply excessive.  Drug possession, as well as other non-violent crimes, are not worthy of life sentences in most people’s minds.  Consider for instance the case of Alabama resident Lee Carroll Brooker, who is currently serving a life sentence without parole for growing three dozen marijuana plants.  Some question whether this is the type of situation the habitual offender laws were created to address.

Indeed, life sentences are rare – coming in at a huge 1% of total prison sentences. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2000 the average sentence in state courts for murder was 20 years.  If you are considering the severity of a sentence, life without parole is the second worst punishment an offender can receive, second only to the death penalty.

History of “three strikes” laws in the U.S.

Washington was the first state in the nation to adopt a “three strikes” law.  Beginning in the 1990s, nearly half of the states in our country have adopted some type of “three strikes” law.  The practice of imposing longer prison sentences for repeat offenders is not really a new concept.  Judges typically take into consideration prior offenses when determining sentencing.

Even in states that do not specifically impose a life sentence enhancement for habitual offenders, their laws could still send someone away for life.  Currently, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Oklahoma all sentence nonviolent offenders to life without parole for nonviolent crimes. Mississippi alone requires life sentences for being convicted of possession for barely one ounce of marijuana.

If you have questions regarding sentencing, or any other criminal defense matters, please contact Ketcham Law for a consultation by calling us at (205) 296-4233.

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