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Even with the ever-growing prison population, some states continue to hand out excessive sentences for non-violent drug offenders. This, coupled with an aging prison population serving life for non-violent drug crimes, has people calling for a shift in the way we sentence these offenders. Many of the thousands serving life were put there for petty crimes, including possession of marijuana. With the collective public opinion clearly shifting when it comes to marijuana use, many people and even states are calling for a reform in how we treat those criminals involved in non-violent drug offenses.

non-violent drug crime

According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, the estimated cost of imprisoning these offenders for life, versus a more proportionate length, costs taxpayers over $1 billion. Many of the life sentences handed out are a result of both habitual offender and mandatory sentencing laws. Here is a profile of four people who are serving life sentences for non-violent drug crimes.

1. Robert Riley

Robert J. Riley, now 62, was what is known as a Deadhead, meaning he travelled the country during the 60’s and 70’s following the Grateful Dead. Like many of his fellow Deadheads, Riley participated in recreational drug use and sold small amounts as an extra source of income. Riley was no stranger to law enforcement and had twice previously been convicted and served time for possession of small amounts of marijuana and amphetamines.

In 1993, Riley attempted to mail a small amount of the drug LSD, which was dissolved onto blotting paper, to a friend. He was caught and his friend testified against him in order to receive a lighter sentence. The normal sentence for an offense of this nature would carry a prison time of three years. Prosecutors have the discretion to count previous offenses as strikes against the offender and in Riley’s case they decided to count the previous two convictions against the defendant. Prosecutors also opted to count the weight of the blotter paper with the weight of the actual LSD, which was minimal. The added weight of the paper put the amount to over 10 grams and that, combined with the use of the two previous convictions, triggered a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

hands in jail

The judge on Riley’s case, Judge Ronald Longstaff, was obligated to impose the sentence. During the sentencing, Longstaff declared that he disagreed with what he considered to be an unfair sentence. Nine years later, the judge wrote a letter in support of granting presidential clemency to Riley. He has now been behind bars for 19 years.

2. Anthony Kelley

In 1992, when Anthony Kelley was only 19, he was arrested and pled guilty to simple possession of cocaine. Two years later, Kelley was arrested and pled guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Four years later, in July of 1999, Kelley was at a friends apartment in a New Orleans suburb when police broke down the door, searched the apartment and subsequently arrested everyone inside. This was after they had received a tip from an informant who had recently purchased a $20-bag of marijuana from the apartment’s inhabitant and Kelley’s friend, Gwendolyn Minor. Inside the apartment, the police found 21 small bags of marijuana in the toilet and 21 small bags of marijuana in Minor’s purse.

small bag of marijuana

During the trial, Kelley claimed he was only in the apartment because he had given Minor a ride to the store and was helping her carry groceries inside. This story was corroborated by Minor, who took full responsibility for all of the marijuana and insisted Kelley was not involved and did not even know she sold marijuana. Despite Minor’s testimony Kelley was initially sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was later re-sentenced after prosecutors used his previous convictions in order to obtain a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Kelley has since appealed his sentence, claiming he did not know that his earlier guilty pleas could be used to enhance a future felony sentence. He appeal was denied and he has currently served 13 years of his life sentence.

3. Fate Vincent Winslow

In 1984, at the age of 17, Winslow was convicted of simple burglary. 10 years later, when he was 24, he was convicted again of simple burglary for opening an unlocked car and rummaging through the contents without stealing anything. Another 10 years later when Winslow was 37, he was convicted of possession of cocaine. In 2008, an undercover officer approached Winslow, who is black, and a white man named Mr. Perdue. The undercover officer asked homeless and hungry Winslow if he could help him get $20 worth of marijuana for a $5 commission.

money passing hands

The officer gave Winslow a $20 bill and a $5 dollar bill and claimed to have witnessed Winslow purchase the marijuana from Perdue in a hand-to-hand transaction. Winslow was then arrested and police found only the $5 bill on him, later finding the marked $20 bill on Perdue, who was not arrested. Prosecutors used his previous three convictions to obtain a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Winslow, who cannot afford an attorney, filed an appeal which was hand written in pencil. His appeal was unsuccessful.


These are just a few of the many stories of people who are spending their lives in prison for non-violent drug crimes. If you or someone you know is in need of state or federal criminal defense, call Gabriel L. Grasso at (702) 868-8866 today.



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