Harsh Sentencing Laws in Ala. Imprisoning Non-Violent Offenders for Life

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According to figures from the Alabama Sentencing Commission, as of Oct. 17, 2016 more than 80 percent of the state’s 220 prisoners convicted of first-degree cannabis possession – defined as more than 1 kilo or 2.2 pounds – are black. That figure is wholly disproportionate to the state’s population, which according to U.S. Census Bureau data from July 2015 is 27 percent black and 69.5 percent is white.

In Alabama, harsh sentencing laws for repeat offenders and drug traffickers lead to life sentences, according to a report from AL.com. Richard Bolden was convicted in February 2015 of trafficking cannabis after police found him in possession of 2.4 pounds of cannabis – slightly above the state’s kilo threshold and cause for the trafficking charge. Although prosecutors could not prove he actually sold the drug, he was sentenced to life, despite the fact his criminal record contained no violence. Without that extra weight, Bolden would have been sentenced to 10 years.

“All over the United States they are legalizing the use of marijuana while here in Alabama people are being convicted to life sentences,” Bolden wrote in a 2016, jailhouse letter to AL.com. “My charge should have been reduced to possession but because the prosecutor knew he could give me a life sentence because of my one prior [Class A] conviction out of the state of Florida he pursued my case viciously.”

According to the report, police built a case based on “constructive possession” – meaning drugs were found in his home and deemed to be his – but Bolden maintains that the search was conducted illegally. In 2015, Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals Judge J. Elizabeth Kellum denied his appeal that the search was improper. Her colleague Judge Samuel Henry Welch dissented in the opinion, concluding that “the warrant was so lacking in probable cause ‘as to [as] render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable.’”

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“[T]he affidavit overwhelmingly presents only [Dothan Police] Officer Mock’s pure speculation that illegal drugs were probably in the trailer on Eddins Road at the time the warrant was issued,” Welch wrote in his opinion.

Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore – who is currently serving a suspension for telling probate judges to defy federal gay marriage orders – has also spoken out against the state’s sentencing laws, urging the legislature “to revisit that statutory sentencing scheme to determine whether it serves an appropriate purpose.”

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