In 2014, 39-year-old Kevin Allen was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor for a $20 marijuana sale in Louisiana. Because of a handful of previous drug-related convictions, state prosecutors pushed to increase Mr. Allen’s punishment under Louisiana’s habitual offender statutes — life in prison without the chance of probation, parole, or sentence suspension.
Thanks to a new Louisiana law allowing district attorneys to post-conviction plea agreements with prisoners, Kevin Allen has a chance for freedom. The Last Prisoner Project, a cannabis prisoner advocacy group, launched the #FreeKevinAllen campaign, which has ramped up public pressure on District Attorney J. Schuyler Marvin to reconsider Allen’s case and facilitate his release.
Mariah Daly is a legal fellow with the Last Prisoner Project. She views Kevin Allen’s conviction and life sentence without the possibility of parole as “a stark example of the injustice that still pervades our criminal justice system.”
Kevin Allen and Justin Shealey grew up best friends in Bossier Parish. But by the time they were in their 30s, Shealey was working for a local narcotics task force as an informant. He recorded two $10 pot sales inside a vehicle with Allen.
Prosecutors in District Attorney Marvin’s office offered Allen a five-year sentence if he pleaded guilty to two counts of marijuana distribution. Allen was sure his best friend (Shealey) wouldn’t testify against him, and as a father of two with a steady job, he declined the plea offer.
But Shealey’s testimony helped convince a jury to convict Allen on both counts. Twenty-sixth Judicial District Judge Michael Craig sentenced Allen to two concurrent 10-year prison terms.
But Louisiana law affords prosecutors discretion to increase sentencing for a repeat offender – up to life in prison. To invoke the habitual-offender law, the DA’s office cited Allen’s four previous convictions ranging from possession with intent to distribute marijuana in 2004 to methamphetamine possession in 2013.
The habitual-offender law allows minimal leeway for judges. Allen turned down a second, 20-year plea offer before the habitual-offender hearing pleading that he was an addict who never got treatment.
Twenty-sixth Judicial District Judge Michael Craig described Allen as “a classic reason that the multiple offender statute was enacted” and issued a life sentence that an appeals court endorsed shortly afterward.
Allen is one of approximately 300 people serving life without parole in Louisiana prisons as habitual offenders. In 40% of those cases, the person convicted is sentenced to life in prison for a non-violent crime.
Louisiana prosecutors have directed the law primarily at Black defendants, like Allen.
According to data provided by Louisiana’s corrections department, there are 20 parishes where every person serving a life sentence as a habitual offender is Black — including all 26 of the prisoners from East Baton Rouge. While Black people make up 31% of Louisiana’s population, 66% of its state prisoners are Black. Of those serving life sentences in Louisiana, 73% are Black, and 83% of those serving life as habitual offenders are Black.
Recently Louisiana voted to legalize medical marijuana. And in 2017, reforms excluded life sentences for non-violent crime and reduced the “cleansing period,” after which prior offenses drop from the repeat-offender calculus. Some habitual lifers, like Allen, would not have qualified for their current sentences if they committed the same crimes today.
“I feel like they need to have a change of heart about what they done to me. A change of heart about sending me to Angola on drug life…I feel like if the jury would have known I was gonna get a life sentence, they probably wouldn’t have found me guilty,” said Allen. The jury’s 11-1 split verdict in Allen’s case is no longer allowed and would currently be a mistrial.
“Mr. Allen’s case, like many other cannabis offenders’, is an utter travesty of justice,” said Daly.
Allen’s attorney, Erin Tremain, said his life sentence is “an abuse of the tremendous power and discretion enjoyed by prosecutors in our system.”
LPP encourages the public to contact DA Marvin by phone or email to push for Allen’s release; call and email scripts are available through LPP’s #FreeKevinAllen campaign page.
“All I did was get set up from some drugs,” said Allen. “I still feel to this day that I’m not supposed to be here.”