June 22, 2021 01:41

Release from 90-Year Sentence for Pot Trafficking Intensifies Drug Law Debate


Richard DeLisi at the beginning of his sentence vs now, 31 years later. Photos courtesy Last Prisoner Project

The release of a Florida inmate sentenced to 90 years in prison for non-violent drug charges reflects the changing perspectives in the long-running national debate about drug legalization.

Richard DeLisi, 71, was sentenced to prison in 1989 with three consecutive 30-year sentences, which was considered the longest sentence for a non-violent drug crime in U.S. history, report CBS News  and USA Today.

Richard and his brother Ted DeLisi were arrested and convicted for marijuana trafficking, as well as conspiracy to traffic marijuana and racketeering. Both brothers appealed their sentence. Ted’s was approved and he was released in 2013; Richard’s appeal was denied.

The 90-year sentence for non-violent drug charges is over five times what the normal sentence was for comparable crimes at the time, between 12-17 years.

Richard served 31 years of his sentence before being released following a campaign led by his family members and the Last Prisoner project, a nonprofit group that lobbies against unjust marijuana-related charges and sentences. The project released a 223-page report in support of DeLisi’s release in August.

“With widespread support for legalization and the burgeoning of the legal cannabis industry in Florida it seems that DeSantis’s constituents would agree that no nonviolent cannabis offender should face a death sentence,” said the Last Prisoner Project’s website.

Chiara Juster, a legal advisor with the Last Prisoner Project, handled Richard’s case pro bono.

Supporters also argued that DeLisi, who has underlying health conditions and is high-risk due to his age, was at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and dying or having severe negative health effects while incarcerated.

Although advocates pushed for DeLesi’s early release, “the Florida Department of Corrections said the shortening of DeLisi’s sentence had nothing to do with the efforts of any outside parties,” said USA Today.

DeLisi had never been awarded 390 days of “provisional release credits” when he was incarcerated and also met the requirements for consideration to “restore gain time forfeited” for disciplinary violations by the Florida Department of Corrections.

The combination of DeLisi’s provisional release credits and the restoration of forfeited gain time allowed an even earlier release than his original early release date of June 2022.

But the DeLisi case points to the larger issue of how to deal with non-violent drug offenders.

While DeLisi was incarcerated, the majority of states either decriminalized or legalized the use of marijuana. Four states passed marijuana-related legislation on the November 3 ballot. As of this month,  36 out of  50 states allow cannabis for medical purposes, and at least 15 have decriminalized it.

Congress has also joined the trend. This month, the House of Representatives passed la legislation that would decriminalize marijuana on the federal level. The bill is expected to die in the Senate.

The recent wave to either legalize or decriminalize the drug comes from the overcrowding of prisons and jails, resources that should ideally be saved for offenders that are at high risk of committing more dangerous or violent crime.

The trend to decriminalize pot raises the question of fairness for those who are already incarcerated due to non-violent drug offenses like DeLisi. Prosecution appears to depend on the state in which the alleged offense took place.

Even if marijuana was legalized federally or within the state which an individual resides in, expunging the charge from your record could be nearly impossible.

“The movement for legalization isn’t just about destigmatizing a plant and sorting the profits. It’s about halting the panoply of harms still being exacted — racially targeted over-policing, mass incarceration, and vilification of drug users — and about building a more equitable future,” said Vox.

“There’s a feeling of who’s responsible for this debt,” said Rick DeLisi, Richard’s son.

“I don’t mean debt with money. I mean something more valuable. Time. Something you can never get back.”

Read More: ‘A Tale of Two Countries,’: Racial Disparity in Marijuana Arrests

Emily Riley is TCR justice reporting intern.

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