When former Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the murder of Botham Jean on October 3, 2019, the public reaction was a combination of relief and exasperation. The case starkly reflects the flaws in the current landscape of American criminal justice: Guyger, who is white, killed Jean, a 26-year-old black man, while he was relaxing after work in his living room. Guyger invoked Texas’ "Stand Your Ground" law, claiming she was justifiably scared for her life when she wandered into his unlocked home after work, mistaking it for hers in the same apartment complex.
The jury ultimately held her accountable for opening fire on her innocent and unsuspecting victim, while evidence and accusations of individual and systemic racism dominated the trial, as well as the sentencing reaction and aftermath. Critics of the American criminal justice system seethed at the outright sympathy shown to Guyger in the courtroom; the judge even gifted her with a Bible and a warm hug after the sentencing. Many see the case and aftermath (including the murder of key witness Joshua Brown days after the verdict) as an apropos example of the gun and police violence plaguing the US, and disproportionately affecting minority communities. More optimistic observers see the extremely rare conviction of an (albeit technically off-duty) officer for killing a citizen as a sign of progress toward police reform and accountability.
Still others have focused on the length of the sentence. Guyger's 10-year sentence is well below the average sentence for murder in Texas, and more infuriatingly, far less than what many are serving for nonviolent drug crimes throughout the country, including and especially cannabis possession and distribution.
While some may assume that cannabis legalization and decriminalization automatically bring freedom and expungement to those convicted for marijuana "crimes" in the jurisdictions that have approved legal reforms, that has not been entirely the case. Illinois, for example, has included release and expungement in their legislation, but in other states like California, those with cannabis smears on their records have had to apply for expungement or reductions to which the new law entitles them. There are still a number of people with 10 years or more left on their sentences for cannabis, with at least 67 of those being life sentences.
The five prisoners briefly profiled here are individuals whose cases are representative of the harsh and ongoing inhumanity that far too many prisoners of the War on "Drugs" are still subjected to.
Michael Pelletier: Double Life Sentence for Disabled Man Overlooked By Obama
Michael Pelletier’s case is rare for the specifics of his situation and disability, but not in its arbitrary cruelty. Pelletier lost the use of his legs at 11, and was already serving a life sentence in a wheelchair when minor pot charges in the State of Maine were upgraded to a life sentence on federal charges after he "conspired" to smuggle larger quantities from Canada into Maine. Pelletier’s case was not reviewed by the Obama administration, despite that the administration had committed to reviewing every case (including Pelletier's) that qualified for all Justice Department factors for review, such as demonstrating good conduct in prison and having no history of violence prior to or during his current term of imprisonment. Civilized has previously drawn attention to Pelletier’s plight continuing despite Maine’s legalization of recreational cannabis in 2016.
Sign Michael’s Petition for Clemency
Diana Marquez: Matriarch Serving Three Decades For First Offense
Diana Marquez is a 62-year-old mother of five and grandmother of sixteen who was given a 30-year sentence for conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana and money laundering related to her husband's unlicensed pot business. She was not accused of having any criminal involvement with his business, beyond using part of the proceeds to buy a property. It was her first offense. Marquez has been locked up since June 2007.
Sign Diana’s Petition for Clemency
Pedro Moreno: Wrong Legal Advice Leads To Life
Pedro Moreno was advised by his counsel that if he plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to distribute 1,000 kilograms of marijuana and money laundering, he would receive no more than 20 years. The lawyer was wrong, and Moreno and his four brothers were each handed a life sentence despite the fact that it was also his first offense. His brothers all received clemency from President Obama in 2016, but Pedro’s was denied without explanation. A father of three and grandfather of five, Moreno has been in prison since 1996. Over the 22 years and counting that he has been in prison, his wife has died and his daughter got married. He was not allowed to attend either the wedding or funeral. Moreno is hoping President Trump will reconsider his case and excellent prison conduct record.
Sign Pedro’s Petition for Clemency
Ferrell Scott: Criminalized Family Man Serving Life Without Parole
When Ferrell Scott was busted in Texas for possession and conspiracy to distribute marijuana in 2007, national attitudes had already been changing toward cannabis for some time. Unfortunately for Scott, he was still handed a life sentence without parole, partially due to having had multiple minor nonviolent legal issues in the past. Scott's first clemency request was rejected by the Obama administration in 2016, even though one of the prosecutors on his case wrote a letter of support. Scott has three children and four grandchildren, and had been the "glue that held the family together" according to his niece.
Sign Ferrell’s Petition for Clemency
Corvain Cooper: Victimized By The Drug War and The Supreme Court, Left Behind By California Cannabis and Justice Reform
Corvain Cooper has been particularly victimized by the senselessly racist laws and policies that have dominated not just the country, but the liberal cannabis capital of California. The devoted father of two daughters has been in prison since 2014 with a state sentence of life without parole for distributing marijuna and money laundering. Cooper had a prior record for possession of marijuana, and under California’s Three Strikes law — another relic of the tough on crime era — automatically triggered a life sentence without parole. Cooper’s case has received significant attention due to reforms in both the Three Strikes law and California cannabis laws, including that marijuana possession was a felony in the state until Proposition 47 in 2014, and of course Proposition 64 which mostly legalized cannabis in 2016. Despite these changes and the clear injustice of his sentence, the Supreme Court recently denied Cooper’s appeal. His last hope is clemency, for which he has re-filed.
Sign Corvain’s Petition for Clemency
The ‘Tough on Crime’ Era: Bipartisan Folly and New Slavery
Amy Ralston Povah is the founder and executive director of CAN-DO (Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders), an organization she started immediately after she, herself, received clemency from President Clinton in July 2000. Povah served nine years of a 24-year sentence for conspiracy in a high profile ecstasy operation run by her ex-husband, in which she had no active involvement. While many rightly blame Richard Nixon for launching the modern iteration of the Drug War, Amy’s case led her to get educated and active about the mutation and expansion of that war under Ronald Reagan. “To emphasize, this isn’t Nixon’s Drug War (of the 60s and 70s), but a very different reincarnation and escalation of the Drug War into what we’re currently under, which was rejuvenated under the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations,” she says.
Like many other victims of the "tough on crime" era of the Drug War, Povah was unaware of the escalation she describes until the time of her arrest in 1989. Those changes included the extreme rise in conspiracy charges and mandatory minimum sentencing — which requires judges to impose at least a set number of years for certain crimes, regardless of circumstance. The consequences of this approach have been astronomical and unequal. An analysis by the Brennan Center For Justice, an independent, nonpartisan law and policy organization, sums it up: “When Reagan took office in 1980, the total prison population was 329,000, and when he left office eight years later, the prison population had essentially doubled, to 627,000.” According to research by the Drug Policy Alliance and others, prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for black people as for white people charged with the same offense, and Latinx people make up around 60 percent of the federal Drug War prisoner population, despite being around 20 percent of the overall population.
The "tough on crime" position was not a partisan one, and for many Republicans and Democrats, there was ongoing competition over who could institute the harshest and most punitive legislation as lives, families and communities were sacrificed to their rabid virtue signaling. Povah and others who suffered the consequences remember it well. “During the mid-late 80’s, all these laws were rammed through congress because the Democrats and Republicans were trying to outdo each other to see who was the toughest on crime, particularly the Drug War,” she says. Povah notes that some of the worst offenders during that time are still relevant in current politics — including Democratic presidential candidate and former Senator and Vice President Joe Biden, who has come under scrutiny for his past work as the architect of some of the most insidious elements of The Drug War. “Up until he threw his hat in the ring, I don’t think many people knew on a broad scale the scope and magnitude of his contribution to the current incarnation of the drug war that dates to the mid 80’s,” says Povah.
Povah and other activists encourage people to look deeper into both the recent and further past, and understand the systemic issues that have allowed for and encouraged mass incarceration. When the US abolished slavery with the 13th amendment, the law allowed neither "slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." If that sounds a lot like slavery under a different name, it’s because it is. The Louisiana State Prison, for example, is still commonly referred to by its plantation name of Angola, after the African country from which many of Louisiana’s slaves were originally kidnapped. In Angola a population that is 76 percent black still picks cotton and other staple agricultural crops and 71 percent of the inmates are serving life sentences. The institiution of this modern slavery, and the racist ways it has been applied are explored in Ava Duvernay’s acclaimed 2016 documentary 13th, which justice reform activists consider required contextual viewing.
Private, for profit prisons, which are operated by companies contracted by the state, have also grown alarmingly in recent years: From 2000 to 2016 the number of people housed in private prisons increased five times faster than the total prison population. Over a similar timeframe, the proportion of people detained in private immigration facilities increased by 442 percent, according to The Sentencing Project. Many large American companies have used private prison slave labor, or sold products produced by it, including Whole Foods, Microsoft, Raytheon and Starbucks. Government run prisons also employ prisoners in manufacturing of products for the prisons they are in, government agencies, and nonprofits. Working inmates make up about 50 percent of the 2.3 million incarcerated people, and are paid an average of $0.87 an hour, of which up to 50 percent is typically deducted for fines and court costs.
Asset forfeiture is another often ignored financial incentive to policies that maintain the status quo. According to the ACLU, asset forfeiture “allows police to seize — and then keep or sell — any property they allege is involved in a crime. Owners need not ever be arrested or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or even real estate to be taken away permanently by the government.“ Since at least 2015, law enforcement has taken more stuff from people annually than burglars. Reversing mass incarceration and implementing meaningful justice and police reform necessarily entails confronting the toxic capitalism and racism that nurture and sustain it.
Fewer Prisons, Less Violence, Fewer Police
A consistent feature of “tough on crime” legislation was a demand for more police. Between 1990 and 1999 alone, over 200,000 new law enforcement officers were hired in the country. Criminalizing, arresting and imprisoning less people, especially for petty and nonviolent crimes, means less need and demand for the ubiquitous presence of law enforcement. Derecka Purnell and Marbre Stahly-Butts, human rights and racial justice lawyers, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed that “We can’t repair the harm [of] the 1994 crime bill [and] mass incarceration without reducing the size and scope of the police.” With more than 10.5 million people arrested annually, the US has the world’s highest overall incarceration rate.
The specifically racist origins and history of American policing is likewise important to note when studying how we got here. Early American police, particularly in the South, were employed as slave patrols, returning runaway slaves to their owners, since they were considered to be their owners' "property." During post-Civil War reconstruction and the original Jim Crow period, local police worked hand in hand with other terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan to oppress black, immigrant and native populations. Through the early to mid 20th century, police enthusiastically and often violently enforced segregation. Native Americans and communities of color have always experienced the brunt of that legacy, and as American justice progresses, the distrust and trauma that understandably remains between those communities and law enforcement largely remains to be reconciled.
Povah and others also point to the costly and deadly militarization of police through SWAT teams and surplus military equipment sent back from America’s global war operations. From 1997 to 2014, the Department of Defense transferred $4.3 billion in military equipment to local law agencies. Results have been a predictably deadly and racist failure, much like the rest of the War on Drugs. In 2018, approximately one thousand Americans were shot to death by police, while police killing is now the sixth leading cause of death for men aged 25-29 in the US. Demilitarization, de-incarceration, and de-escalation of police hiring and tactics are intertwined needs.
What can You do about it?
As the cannabis movement matures into a public lobbying and voting bloc of considerable power and reach, opportunities to positively affect the lives and communities impacted by the shortsighted and inhumane policies of the past grow accordingly. Changing attitudes and awareness about cannabis, the Drug War, addiction, and prison and police reform are becoming increasingly mainstream.
To spur action on these issues, it’s important for people to educate themselves and others, and demand action on local, state and federal levels. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, written in 2010 by Michele Alexander, is a bestseller that has changed the conversation about mass incarceration and its racist roots and consequences. Read it, and check out the organizations and education resources listed by The New Jim Crow action site to get further involved.
Executively, there is the clemency route, which President Barack Obama embraced towards the end of his time in office, launching his Clemency Initiative in 2014 and eventually commuting or pardoning 1,927 prisoners. Though first employing anti-cannabis relic Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, with predictably negative results, the Trump administration has since signalled that they may be responsive to public campaigns for compassionate release. Alice Marie Johnson was granted clemency in June 2018 after 21 years of a life sentence in prison for a nonviolent drug-related crime after celebrity influencer Kim Kardashian met directly with the president to plead her case. Signing and sharing petitions and campaigns like those linked through the article and on CAN-DO’s website can have a direct impact on if they are considered.
Project Mission Green is an initiative co-sponsored by CAN-DO and cannabis brands Blüm dispensary and Famous Farms. They are seeking to directly influence the president toward cannabis clemency by gathering signatures on a letter signed by celebrities, politicians, musicians, activists, and influential business people that they will directly deliver to Trump. “We are hoping that by spreading the message that these individuals are human beings who are being victimized by a cruel and unjust system, we can effect some radical policy changes,” says Amy Oppedisano, cofounder of Blüm.
Former prisoner of war Amy Ralston Povah says she's encouraged that after decades of Drug War carnage, a noticeable change for the better has finally started to take hold. In California, legislation was recently signed banning private for profit prisons and detention centers, and national politicians are also starting to take heed. Presidential hopefuls such as Bernie Sanders, Tulsi Gabbard and Cory Booker, have made the issue central to their agendas as candidates and legislators. Campaign fear-mongering about ‘superpredators’ and misguided public misinformation campaigns are finally being replaced by compassion, common sense, and de-incarceration. “People who are running for office have begun to realize that there is a plank to run on, and now we’re hearing from at least a lot of Democratic [2020 Presidential] nominees that they’re against mass incarceration,” she says. “I’m happy that at least, in my lifetime I’m feeling the winds of change.”