James Leroy Holden, 36, of Waterloo, Iowa will be residing at Fort Madison, the Iowa state prison, for at least the next few years. On July 5, Holden was sentenced to 27 years in prison for smoking marijuana with his six-year-old son. Black Hawk County prosecutors charged him with two counts of distribution of marijuana to a minor, one count of manufacturing marijuana, one count of child endangerment and one count of being a habitual offender. (Holden pled guilty to a burglary charge in the early 1980s, his lawyer told DRCNet.)
Under Iowa law, if Holden had instead offered his young son a can of Budweiser, the maximum sentence he could have faced would have been two years for child endangerment. Distribution of alcohol to a minor is a misdemeanor in Iowa, typically punished with fines. Instead, District Court Judge gave him two 25-year sentences for distribution to a minor, a 15-year sentence for manufacturing marijuana, a 15-year sentence as an habitual offender and the two-year sentence for child endangerment. All but the latter will run concurrently.
"This is just more insanity in the war on drugs," Ben Stone, director of the Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told DRCNet. "I'm still waiting for an Iowa judge to find a sentence that is too harsh." But, Stone added, "you have to begin with 'giving joints to a six-year-old is wrong.'"
Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org), was quick to agree. "NORML is not interested in someone's right to use drugs with a six-year-old child, period," he told DRCNet. "It is asinine for someone to get himself in this situation, but the sentence he received was also absurd. You can probably kill two or three people in Iowa and get less time," said Stroup.
"Let's get real here," Stroup continued. "Unless there is some indication the child was seriously injured, this was a case of stupid parenting, not a violent criminal offense. I can imagine the community was offended by the facts of the case, but the criminal justice system has the obligation to maintain proportionality, to ensure that punishments fit the offense. The system has clearly lost sight of proportionality in this matter."
Holden will be eligible for parole in three to four years, "but that doesn't mean he'll get it," said his attorney, John Bishop of Cedar Rapids.
"He pled guilty to all charges in the hope that he would get the court's consideration that he had accepted responsibility for his actions," Bishop told DRCNet. "He was looking at more than 80 years. This statute was designed for people out selling drugs to school kids, but he wasn't selling to kids, he was under the influence himself."
Holden went down because two confidential informants told police they had witnessed him offering a joint to his son, Bishop said. "The cops got a search warrant, and Holden confessed, but he was clearly just a user. There were no scales, no huge supply of drugs, and no money," the defense attorney noted.
"I don't think this crime warrants a 27-year sentence," said Bishop. "He had been out on bond for almost a year, living with his wife and children, and while the Department of Human Services opened a case file after he was arrested, the children are doing well in school and the department had closed the case file."
Overall, said Stone, "Iowa is going the wrong way on drug sentencing." The Iowa ACLU head told DRCNet: "This state is moving toward no-parole sentencing, and it is a really frustrating situation when you have a Democratic governor running scared every time somebody says the words 'drug crime.' We need a cease fire in the war on drugs."
While Iowa judges may be able to stomach sending people to prison for decades for minor crimes, an Arkansas sentence has proven to be too much for the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals. On Monday, the appeals court threw out a life sentence given to a 54-year-old first offender caught in possession of $20 worth of cocaine.
Grover Henderson was sentenced in Lafayette County in 1994 for possession of about a quarter-gram of cocaine. He had no prior criminal record. Although he appealed, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the sentence. The 8th Circuit disagreed: "This is one of those rare [sic] cases in which the sentence imposed is so harsh in comparison to the crime for which it was imposed that is unconstitutional," wrote the court, vacating the sentence and giving the state of Arkansas 90 days in which to re-sentence Henderson or free him.
Although Henderson has already served seven years for his quarter-gram, Lafayette County Prosecutor Brent Haltom told the Associated Press he would recommend another sentencing offer. Haltom said Henderson had previously rejected an 18-year sentence in return for a guilty plea.
Referring to Henderson's choice to appeal his sentence, Haltom generously commented: "We're not going to hold it against him that he went through the legal system."