A prison sentence of life without parole is the harshest sentence our courts impose short of death, so the crimes that merit sending a person to prison for the rest of his or her life should be some pretty serious crimes. But let me introduce you to Lee Carroll Brooker, a 76-year-old disabled, decorated army veteran who has been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, with no possibility for parole, for growing marijuana in his backyard to help with his medical ailments. Mr. Brooker has been imprisoned for this marijuana offense since 2011, and unless he is pardoned, he will die in prison. Last week, the United States Supreme Court considered whether to take Mr. Brooker’s case and review whether his sentence to die in prison is “cruel and unusual punishment” under the United States Constitution. The Court declined to even hear the case.
In 24 states and the District of Columbia, medical marijuana is legal. Recreational marijuana is legal in four states, with several others considering allowing it. But Mr. Brooker lived in Alabama, where marijuana is not legal for any purposes, and he was arrested when police found 34 pot plants in his backyard, where he was growing the marijuana in order to self-medicate his chronic pain. Because Mr. Brooker’s plants weighed over a certain threshold when you counted the vines and stalks (which are unusable) and because Mr. Brooker had prior thirty year old felonies, the pot triggered a mandatory sentence of life without parole under Alabama law. Each Alabama judge that heard the case voiced that the sentence was outrageous, but the mandatory sentencing law left no wiggle room for imposing a lesser sentence.
And Mr. Brooker is not alone. A few years ago, the ACLU found that there were 3,278 prisoners serving life without parole sentences, at a cost to taxpayers of $1.784 billion. Of those lifers, 79% of them are in prison for non-violent drug related crimes. One is there for stealing a $159 jacket; another for serving as the middleman in a $10 marijuana sale. The ACLU estimates that 65% of these life prisoners are black.
We’ve written here before about how mandatory minimum sentences lead to outrageous and absurd sentences and contribute to our country’s mass incarceration problem. But this topic is important to revisit today because it is simply stunning that the Supreme Court had the opportunity to do something about the problem, by hearing Mr. Brooker’s case, but instead has chosen to do nothing. The United State Constitution’s 8th Amendment bans “cruel or unusual” punishments, and Mr. Brooker’s sentence is the epitome of cruel and unusual in its utter arbitrariness. Had he lived in Colorado, he committed no crime. But because he lived in Alabama, he will spend the rest of his life in prison for possessing a relatively small amount of marijuana he used to treat his own chronic pain? That is not justice.
The Supreme Court has already invoked the Eighth Amendment to ban mandatory death sentences and mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, finding that the Eighth Amendment must adapt to the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Basic decency should have led the Court to reconsider mandatory life without parole sentences for non-violent offenses like Mr. Brookers’ as well.