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As Decriminalization Drives Reforms For Marijuana Convictions, Activists See Others Serving Time Left Behind

Despite the growing consciousness around the need for reforms, thousands of prisoners who might also deserve clemency or early release are slipping through the cracks.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

In 2003, Mark Sumrell walked into a Kroger in Greenville, Mississippi. He took a jacket off the rack—retail price $39, according to his family—and put it on. As he walked toward the door, two security guards confronted him.

“I stopped walking and asked the two men if I could help them,” Sumrell recalls. “The elder one asked me to give him the jacket, because at this point I’ve put it on. With no hesitation I gave him the jacket. He asked me to go to the security room with him.”

Police soon arrived and arrested Sumrell for shoplifting. He had two prior felony convictions: a robbery charge from 1991 and a cocaine possession charge two years later. Based on the state’s habitual offender law, Judge Ashley Hines sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole. The jacket went back on the shelf. 

“It was re-ticketed and re-sold for retail price,” Sumrell writes from Mississippi State Penitentiary. “Yet, some 17 years later I am still fighting for my life.”  

“Sixteen years of life has passed me by. My daughter was two, she’s nineteen now. My son was fifteen. I have lost the prime of my life in here.” 

In the last decade, there’s been growing, bipartisan consensus that the U.S. imprisons too many people for far too long. That shift largely has come amid a surge in pot legalization at the state level, which has helped generate the political will to stop incarcerating people for marijuana and to redress law enforcement overreaches from the past. Yet despite the growing consciousness around the need for reforms, thousands of prisoners who might also deserve clemency or early release are slipping through the cracks. 

That category includes people who don’t fit the highly exclusive definition of being a nonviolent drug prisoner. Sumrell’s petty shoplifting (in addition to robbery and cocaine possession) aren’t on the radar of social justice groups and activists who focus on drugs. And although many drug policy groups seek to end incarceration for all drug crimes, there is not the same momentum behind methamphetamine, crack cocaine, or opioids as there is for marijuana. Then there are cases that fit the generally accepted notion of nonviolent drug crime, but have complicating factors that might make lawmakers wary of granting clemency. 

Michael Thompson is serving 40 to 60 years for selling pot in Michigan, a state where the drug is now legal. But because police also found several guns in his condo when they arrested him on Dec. 19, 1994, and he had (nonviolent) priors, his case isn’t legally categorized as a nonviolent marijuana crime. Thompson, who has spent 25 years behind bars (and has a perfect disciplinary record), is waiting for the parole board to send his clemency petition to Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Whitmer, a Democrat who has styled herself as an effective leader on COVID-19, has yet to grant Thompson clemency, even as the first cases of the disease appeared at the Muskegon Correctional Facility, where he’s imprisoned. ABC reports that there are more than 100 prisoners at the facility who’ve tested positive. 

Last week, Thompson was hospitalized at the Duane Waters Health Center in Jackson, Michigan, with a case of COVID-19. “My biggest fear finally popped up,” Thompson, who is diabetic, told The Appeal. 

Thompson’s case has garnered widespread public attention. Activist Shaun King has taken up his cause and Kimberly Corral, an Ohio-based attorney, is spearheading his legal campaign for release. Many of Thompson’s supporters are well-known pot entrepreneurs, like Steve DeAngelo, whose group the Last Prisoner Project, an organization devoted to freeing marijuana prisoners, has prioritized getting him out.

Sumrell’s attempt to shoplift a jacket isn’t related to marijuana, so there’s no powerful lobby to take up his case and get him legal help navigating the clemency process. Prisoners associated with “more dangerous” drugs than marijuana also get short shrift in the current discourse around reform. 

“There is no sympathy for meth people,” said Kevin Ring, head of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums). Ring helped draft mandatory minimum legislation for methamphetamine convictions when he worked under then-Senator John Ashcroft in 1998. “Meth was the crime du jour during Ashcroft’s election, and Missouri was hit hard,” he said. 

The bill sponsored by Ashcroft amended the Controlled Substances Act and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act to decrease the quantities of methamphetamine necessary to trigger specified trafficking penalties (to correspond to amounts triggering penalties for trafficking in crack cocaine). When crack sentences at the federal level and some states were rolled back during the Obama administration, the heavy penalties for meth remained. “You’re still seeing a lot of meth cases,” Ring said. ”Mostly Hispanics and poor whites.”   

In its 2013 “A Living Death” report, the ACLU highlighted several cases of life without the possibility of parole for small amounts of methamphetamines. In 2000, Ricky Minor was sentenced to life after authorities discovered a gram of methamphetamine and over-the-counter decongestants in his Florida home. Kevin Ott was sentenced to life in 1996 for three-and-a-half ounces of methamphetamine in Oklahoma. (He was released in 2019 after 23 years.) In 2008, after Daniel Gene Mosley was caught buying four ounces of meth from a dealer in Oklahoma, the then 52-year-old was sentenced to life without parole. 

Ring says current reforms are nowhere near enough to remedy extreme sentencing resulting from mandatory minimums and habitual offender laws, like the Mississippi three strikes law that sent Sumrell to prison for life. “Nobody makes their reforms retroactive,” he said. “They don’t want to be the ones to let anybody out.” 

“It’s classic systemic failure,” Ring notes. “The legislature passes something they say the public wants; the prosecutor says, ‘I’m just using the tool’; the judge says, ‘My hands are tied.’ Everybody passes the buck and the injustice occurs.”  

In September, FAMM is launching a campaign to promote second look laws, which would force courts to re-evaluate a person’s sentence after a significant period of time served. The group continues to push executive clemency, but Ring notes that’s not enough. “We gotta find a way of getting at these long sentences with as many methods as possible. … So if your governor is terrible, or the legislature is bad, there have to be ways to reconsider excessive sentences.” 

Ring points out that Black men in particular face an uphill battle. “The hardest to get out of prison is a Black man,” Ring observes. ”There’s a palpable bias assuming the dangerousness of Black men. People just clench up. Trump’s clemency—there have been no Black men, except posthumously. And it’s not just Trump.”

Sumrell’s mother, Carolyn Bolden, says that her son was a good man struggling with a drug problem. (Sumrell tells The Appeal he tried to steal the jacket to sell it for drugs.) “He was good until he got on the drugs,” Bolden says. “Once he got on drugs that’s when all the little petty criminal acts started leading to the judge giving him life without parole.” 

His younger brother, Arthur Williams, says that like others in the family, Sumrell excels at drawing. The brothers connected over Facebook, but have never met face to face. “I want to get a chance to meet him,” Williams told The Appeal. “It’s been a journey.” 

His mother concurs about her son’s talents. “He was a wonderful son. Made the dean’s list. He was very smart, very talented. He can draw, write poetry, he was always a very respectable son and he still is,” she says. “He picked the wrong life once he chose drugs.” Sumrell’s family had been trying to get him into rehab at the time of his arrest. “I don’t feel that he was treated justly or fairly,” Bolden continues. “I can’t understand why the judge would just take Mark’s life away like that.” 

By comparison, in 2013, Judge Hines sentenced Timothy Frazier to 35 years for breaking into his girlfriend’s house and strangling her to death. Frazier, who is serving his sentence in the same facility as Sumrell, is likely to get out before him.  

Hines presided over Sumrell’s unsuccessful appeal in 2013. “Mark asked him, did he remember him, and he said ‘No,’” Bolden says. “You give a man life without parole and you don’t remember him?”