In 1995, Aron Tuff was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole after being found near 0.3 grams of cocaine that had been dropped on the ground. He was 39 years old and didn’t know if he would ever see his family again. He worried he would die in prison.
The night of his arrest, Aron was in his hometown of Moultrie, Georgia. It was evening, and he was hanging out in a friend’s front yard with fifteen or twenty other people. Suddenly, the police arrived and began searching the yard with flashlights. The officers found the 0.3 grams of cocaine in the grass near where the group had been standing. The police arrested Aron, saying that they saw him making ‘hand motions’ and that they had seen something fall from his hand. When they searched him, they found $90 cash in his pocket.
On this evidence, the prosecutor charged Aron with possession with intent to distribute. In cases like Aron’s involving very small amounts of a drug, prosecutors have a great deal of discretion to decide whether they should charge the person as a drug user or a drug seller. Since drug sellers are punished much more harshly than drug users, the stakes of this decision are enormous. As Aron’s case demonstrates, the evidence that prosecutors use to support possession with intent to distribute charges can be very weak.
Aron had been in the Army when he was younger, and had hurt his back. As he grew older, it became clear that the injury was more serious as he had initially believed. He didn’t have the money to see a doctor and used alcohol and drugs to cope with the pain. He struggled to control his drug use and it became difficult for him to work and maintain his family life. As a result of his drug use, he had four non-violent drug charges on his record. These previous charges allowed the prosecutors to seek a life without parole sentence for the cocaine charge.
Black people, such as Aron, are disproportionately likely to be prosecuted for drug offenses compared to white people. This means that they are particularly severely impacted by sentencing regimes that penalize people harshly for a series of minor drug offenses. Many people, like Aron, end up serving life sentences for a series of minor law violations connected to their drug use.
Aron describes how, despite his frequent contact with the system, he was never able to access the drug treatment that he wanted: “Back then when you went [into the criminal justice system], there was no kind of treatment,” he remembers. “I mean, they had a class, where they told you the dangers of using drugs. They didn’t tell you about support groups; they didn’t tell you what to do if you start feeling an urge; they didn’t tell you, you can call this person here, if you’re feeling weak. We didn’t have support groups.”
In 2016, after spending 22 years in prison, Aron won an early release with the help of the Southern Center for Human Rights. He is now 63 years old. While he was in prison, his mother and brother had died, and his children had had children. “I’m not trying to get back the life I lost,” he says. “What do I want to do, I want to be happy, I want to see my family happy. You understand? And I want to see my kids grow up, my grandkids grow up."
Interview conducted September 5, 2018.