One Louisiana man will likely spend the rest of his life in prison for selling $20 worth of marijuana to an undercover police officer.
A recent piece from Abby Haglage at The Daily Beast tells the story of Fate Vincent Winslow, who was convicted of selling marijuana in 2008. With two prior convictions for non-violent felonies, Winslow was sentenced under the states’s mandatory minimum sentencing rules to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Winslow’s story is a story of drug addiction and homelessness. It also underscores problems with the nation’s so-called war on drugs.
Winslow is black. Another individual, a white man identified only as “Perdue,” was with Winslow the night he was arrested. Although Perdue reportedly had the $20 in his pocket from the drug transaction, Winslow, who kept $5 for running to get the drugs, was the only one taken into custody.
State prosecutor Jason T. Brown tried the case and Haglage interviewed him recently for her story. Brown described Winslow as a “career criminal.”
Winslow, who is now in his late 40s, had a “prolific criminal record,” according to Brown, and had to be locked up, even if it meant sending him away for a relatively small crime.
“We identify people that are repeat and dangerous offenders, and it may be that we’re not able to prove some of the more violent offenses they’ve been involved in,” he said. “So we use other crimes they’re involved in and enhance the convictions to get to the same thing.”
Angela Davis, a criminal law expert at American University, told Haglage that was unreasonable.
“[Brown’s] attitude, I imagine, is not unique,” Davis said, saying that, in most states, there are very few checks on a prosecutor’s power.
“The charging decisions are made behind closed doors in the prosecutor’s office; they don’t have to explain to a judge — or to anyone — why they chose to prosecute one person under a mandatory sentencing law and not another,” she said. “There’s no transparency … which results in a prosecutor with this tremendous power and almost no accountability.”
Just as Brown’s attitude may not be unique, neither is Winslow’s story.
Last year CNN told the story of Jeff Mizanskey, a Missouri man who will also likely die in prison because he was involved in a transaction to purchase seven pounds of marijuana. Mizanskey was also sentenced under mandatory minimum rules because he had two prior non-violent drug convictions, both involving marijuana.
As stories like Winslow’s and Mizanskey’s continue to be told, many are questioning the efficacy of such strict sentencing laws and the overall war on drugs.
The New York Times reported last week that an unlikely coalition of groups, including the American Civill Liberties Union and the conservative group, Freedom Works, is forming to address the problems.
Christine Leonard, a former White House aide involved in criminal justice issues, will head up the new coalition. She said she hopes the group’s backing by well-known and well-funded organizations can help it gain traction in reforming the nation’s justice system and providing some relief to the country’s heavily burdened prison system.
“Everyone is really coming together around a common purpose, but at the end of the day we are going to be measured by whether we can really make a difference,” she said. “Our country needs to be better on these issues.”