The absurdly disparate sentences that are issued in the US legal system is vividly on display in the case of Michael Thompson, aged 68, who has served 25 years of a 40- to 60-year sentence in a Michigan prison. Tana Ganeva describes his case.
In 1994, Thompson sold 3 pounds of pot to a police informant. Michigan legalized pot in 2018, laying the groundwork for a profitable legal industry, making it that much harder for him to understand why he’s still behind bars. “You know after 25 years, you don’t feel nothing no more. You just feel numb,” he said.
In the 25 years he has served, Thompson has watched the rise of a bipartisan criminal justice reform movement and knows that his case illustrates its limits. The movement has focused on “nonviolent” criminals — preferably first-time offenders, preferably drug users — in its effort to roll back mass incarceration. But penal codes across the United States have become adept at stacking charges on defendants that legally qualify as violent — even if they didn’t commit a violent act — undermining that push. The problem is particularly pernicious as it relates to gun ownership, which is not just legal in the U.S., but fetishized as the pinnacle of patriotism. But when it comes to drug crimes, if a gun is anywhere in the picture — or even anywhere off-screen — the crime instantly becomes violent, and in Thompson’s case, as in so many others, the criminal unworthy of clemency. With a nation awash in weapons, the result is predictable.
Thompson’s underlying crime was the pot sale, but his long sentence comes from the fact that police found guns on his properties and that he had a record. Yet he didn’t have a gun on him when he sold the pot, he just happened to be a gun owner. One of the guns that police found was an antique rifle, another belonged to his wife. Gun ownership is also legal in Michigan, including open carry.
Did I mention that Thompson is black? Do I need to?