Black in Alabama: Life in Prison for 2.5 Pounds of Marijuana

Human Rights

A Cowarts, Alabama, man was sentenced this week to life in prison—for being caught with 2 ½ pounds of pot. And yes, he is black.

As The Dothan Eagle reported, Houston County Circuit Court Judge Michael Conaway sentenced Richard Bolden, 39, to life for one count of felony trafficking marijuana. He was also sentenced to eight more years in prison—to be served consecutively—for a bail jumping charge.

Bolden is not a saint, but the life sentence is still extraordinary, and he appears to have been punished for criminal conduct for which he was never tried or convicted. He has one prior felony conviction for a federal drug offense, for which he served time.

But he was out on bail on a cocaine trafficking charge when police raided his residence at a Cowarts mobile home park and found 2 ½ pounds of marijuana. Bolden then fled to Florida, where he was arrested, convicted, and served time on the federal charge.

He was then returned to Alabama to face the state charges there. He was convicted of trafficking marijuana in November.

Alabama law sets a mandatory minimum three-year prison sentence for "trafficking" marijuana (as opposed to a mandatory minimum two years for "sales"), but allows judges to sentence up to 99 years.

In this case, Judge Conaway appears to have been swayed by Bolden's pending criminal case, as well as by his lengthy arrest record, which the judge used to call him "a habitual and dangerous criminal offender."

Bolden had 37 previous arrests, but as his attorney, Chris Capps , pointed out, other than the Florida bust, most of the arrests were for misdemeanors, and none of them had resulted in convictions.

"It would appear they want to make him out to be Jack the Ripper," Capps said, noting that the same judge had recently sentenced someone involved in a 30-pound pot deal to only 10 years.

Alabama has the nation's fourth highest incarceration rate (behind Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma), and the state's prison population has increased 350% since 1978. Draconian prison sentences like the one just handed out to Bolden are one big reason why. 

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