Cornell Hood II, a 35-year-old from New Orleans was handed a life sentence under Louisiana’s repeat offender law. His crime? Possession of and intent to distribute marijuana. Hood had previously pleaded guilty to this crime three times before and had received a five-year suspended sentence for each charge as well as probation.
During a routine visit from his probation officer, marijuana and related materials were seen and reported to local police, who responded and arrested Hood.
Hood’s trial lasted only one day, and the evidence brought against him was indeed damning: Two pounds of marijuana, plastic bags, a digital scale and $1,600 in cash.
The arresting officers also found a student loan application that Hood had been filling out.
The jury took only two hours to deliberate, even finding the sympathy to convict him of a lesser crime that usually carries a 15-year sentence. However, under the state’s repeat offender law, any charge with a penalty of more than 10 years in prison can be turned into a life sentence if the offender has been convicted three or more times.
Now, Mr. Hood is no pioneer of the legalization movement or political activist or folk hero of the marijuana smoking population. He is just a pot dealer, and not a very savvy one at that.
However, is a life sentence really appropriate?
Recent statistics show that the price of keeping a citizen in prison for life costs taxpayers between $40,000 and $60,000 per year. With the U.S. having the largest prison population of any country in the history of the world, one is left thinking, “Is this really the most effective way of handling non-violent offenders? Can we even afford to keep so many people, over 7 million, in the criminal justice system?”
Putting all the calls from both the left and, more recently, the libertarian wing of the right for legalization aside, is our system of imprisoning people for sale of a substance that is used by a reported 12 million Americans effective?
Many have made the connection between the cartel violence on our southern border and the prohibition laws against marijuana use in the U.S. – violence that has killed tens of thousands.
Many others on both sides of the political spectrum have also made the point that through regulation and taxing the American economy could solve a lot of its federal and state budget problems both through new income and through cutting back on the massive prison population.
There is also the question of fairness. A website called Life for Pot is dedicated to shining a light on these inequalities. They point out a list of “kingpins” who were arrested for selling millions of dollars of cocaine and heroine a day who received sentences of only 20 or so years, some of whom even had their sentences reduced after the fact. Yet we continue to pack our prison systems with non-violent drug offenders who inevitably either learn the ways of violence or how to become better criminals in the prison system.
When considering that the roots of drug laws have been embedded in racism and anti-immigrant sentiments, the vigor of law enforcement in arresting minorities should come as no surprise.
In fact, the first marijuana laws were used to randomly search Mexican immigrants and deport them. The spirit behind these laws and their strict enforcement has not changed much, other than targeting all low-income and working-class people, while still sentencing minorities at a much higher rate.
While we have spent well over $15 billion on the war against drugs just this year, it has obviously not gotten the desired effects. The question isn’t one of morality or of personal freedoms but is far simpler: In this time of serious economic hardship and cuts in education and the social safety net, are we not just throwing money away?
While the nation is contemplating this question intellectually, Cornell Hood II, along with many others, is paying for our procrastination with his life.
Real time statistics of how American tax dollars are being spent on the war on drugs can be found on this website.