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Mississippi Court Upholds Life Sentence Of Black Man Arrested For Marijuana Possession

Allen Russell, 38, was arrested with roughly 1.5 ounces of marijuana in in 2017.

By Dorian Geiger
Allen Russell Pd

A Mississippi man sentenced to life in prison for marijuana possession had his appeal struck down in court this week.

Allen Russell, 38, will spend life behind bars after a Mississippi Court of Appeals judges upheld his 2019 conviction on Tuesday, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.

On Nov. 29, 2017, Russell was arrested by Hattiesburg police officers. Authorities confiscated “five bags of a green leafy substance that appeared to be marijuana,” court filings state. In total, nearly 44 grams of cannabis were seized from Russell’s apartment. 

He was sentenced to life in prison in Forrest County without the possibility of parole due to past convictions. Under Mississippi law, individuals can be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole after they’ve served at least one year in prison on two separate felony charges. One of those charges, however, is required to have been a violent offense.

In 2004, Russell pled guilty to two separate charges of burglary of a dwelling. Burglary constitutes a violent offense in Mississippi. 

Russell served roughly eight and a half years and was released from prison in 2014. The following year he pled guilty to possession of a weapon by a convicted felon.

Russell argued in his appeal that a life sentence was “cruel,” “unusual,” and “grossly disproportionate” to his original conviction.

Ultimately his sentence was affirmed by the appeals court.

“Upon review of the case before us, and in accordance with precedent, we find that Russell’s sentencing as a habitual offender was not grossly disproportionate as he claims and was clearly within the prescribed statutory limits,” appeals judges wrote in their decision. “Because Russell has failed to prove the threshold requirement of gross disproportionality, and because his habitual- offender sentence fell within the statutory guidelines, we conclude that his sentence constituted “a constitutionally permissible punishment for his most recent crime.”

Several of the case’s trial judges, however, dissented.

“The purpose of the criminal justice system is to punish those who break the law, deter them from making similar mistakes, and give them the opportunity to become productive members of society,” Judge Latrice Westbrooks wrote. “The fact that judges are not routinely given the ability to exercise discretion in sentencing all habitual offenders is completely at odds with this goal.”

Westbrooks specifically cited the judiciary’s inability to take past “facts and circumstances” into account surrounding a habitual offender’s prior crimes.

“In cases like Russell’s any discretion really lies with the prosecution rather than the judiciary,” Westbrooks wrote. “Once an offender is charged and convicted as a habitual offender, courts have no option but to ‘rubber stamp’ the decision by sentencing an offender.” 

Other dissenting judges stated Russell’s sentence should be vacated.

Mississippi state law dictates that possession of between 30 and 250 grams of cannabis — or over one ounce — is punishable by up to a three-year prison term, a $3,000 fine, or sometimes both. Possessing small amounts of marijuana is technically decriminalized in Mississippi. 

More than a dozen states have decriminalized and legalized recreational marijuana. Earlier this year, New York became the latest state to legalize adult-use cannabis. The move is expected to create tens of thousands of jobs and generate approximately $350 million in annual revenue. The legislation also automatically expunges past marijuana convictions and prohibits "unlawful" workplace discrimination of cannabis use by employers.

New Yorkers can now smoke cannabis "almost anywhere that cigarette smoking is allowed," according to state Public Health Law, which includes sidewalks, front stoops, or other public locations, city police said.

"As a result, smoking marijuana in any of these locations is not a basis for an approach, stop, summons, arrest or search," Sgt. Jessica McRorie of the New York City Police Department told Oxygen.com in a statement Friday. 

In April, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill easing restrictions on parole eligibility for incarcerated individuals across the state. The legislation, however, excludes repeat offenders, and those convicted of certain crimes, such as murder. according to the Associated Press. Senate Bill 2795 is slated to become state law on July 1. In 2020, Reeves, who is a Republican, vetoed a series of criminal justice bills, including one that would have greatly expanded parole eligibility for thousands of inmates.

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