Well-meaning legislation had unintended consequences

Published 11:35 am Saturday, April 23, 2016

Even ultra-conservative Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore agrees that the septegenarian Lee Carroll Brooker shouldn’t spend the rest of his life in prison.

Brooker is the Houston County man arrested and convicted of growing three dozen marijuana plants in his son’s back yard, but sentenced to life in prison without parole. He was 75 at the time of his arrest, and the disabled veteran said the plants grown behind his son’s house were for medicinal use.

But that’s not allowed under Alabama law, and the weight of the plants was over a certain threshold, making Brooker’s crime a felony. And there the problem begins, even though there was no evidence to suggest he was selling the plants. No matter how sympathetic Moore or any other judge might feel, Brooker’s past has come back to haunt him.

The Cottonwood man had four prior felonies – one count of attempted robbery with a firearm and three counts of robbery with a firearm. His attorney explained that those convictions in Florida occurred when Brooker was a much-younger man, at a time he drank heavily to ease the chronic mental and physical pain he suffers. The prior felonies made Brooker’s life sentence in 2014 mandatory under Alabama’s Habitual Offender Act, even though he had done time for those crimes many years ago.

The Alabama Legislature passed the Habitual Felony Offender Act in 1977. Under the act, anyone convicted of a Class A felony with three prior felonies – no matter how old – receives an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Just like Mr. Brooker.

They strengthened that law in 1980 when they added mandatory-minimum sentences for violent offenders and abolished good-behavior credit for prisoners serving long-term sentences. When the habitual offender act was first passed, Alabama had 3,455 people incarcerated. By 2013, that number was more than 32,000.

There is no doubt, those legislators who supported the habitual offender act intended only to punish people for serious crimes. Their well-meaning votes contributed to an explosion of the prison population, and put a grandfather in prison for life near the end of his life.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Mr. Brooker’s conviction and sentence. Both the Alabama Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

“Under circumstances like those of Brooker’s arrest and conviction, a trial court should have the discretion to impose a less severe sentence than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” Roy Moore wrote in his concurrence.

“In my view, Brooker’s sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a non-violent, drug-related crime reveals grave flaws in our statutory sentencing scheme,” Moore wrote.

I understand the concerns of those who oppose prison reform and fear the consequences of reduced or alternative sentences.

But Brooker’s case is proof that there might be room in the center for compromise.


Michele Gerlach is publisher of The Star-News.