When Ronald Hammond appeared in a Baltimore courtroom on a charge of possessing 5.9 grams of marijuana, the judge scoffed at the case.
District Judge Askew Gatewood told the prosecutor that "5.9 grams won't roll you a decent joint," according to a transcript of the 2012 case. "Why would I want to spend taxpayers' money putting his little raggedy butt in jail — feeding him, clothing him, cable TV, Internet, prayer, medical expense, clothing — on $5 worth of weed?"
Gatewood encouraged Hammond to plead guilty and said he would let him off with a small fine.
But months later, the case would land Hammond in prison for 20 years.
Hammond was on probation at the time, for selling $40 worth of crack cocaine to an undercover officer, resulting in a distribution charge. Circuit Judge Lynn Stewart-Mays gave Hammond a suspended sentence of 20 years in that case, warning that if he violated probation he would face the whole term.
Hammond, 31, is in prison with a projected release date of 2028. On Friday, he will petition the court to overturn his marijuana conviction, arguing that his constitutional rights were violated. The Baltimore state's attorney's office contends in court documents that he has no grounds to appeal.
Mary Price, general counsel for the drug-reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said his sentence was "extraordinarily punitive."
"Sending somebody to prison for $40 of cocaine and not enough marijuana to build a joint seems unfathomable," Price said.
"This case exemplifies how the criminal justice system works against itself," said Hammond's new attorney, Gabriela Hopkins.
Since Hammond's marijuana arrest, the General Assembly passed legislation decriminalizing marijuana possession of less than 10 grams. The House of Delegates passed a bill this year excluding marijuana as a possible probation violation, but the measure died in the Senate. But legislative changes would not affect Hammond's case retroactively.
The current maximum penalty for possession of 10 grams of marijuana or less is a $100 fine.
The 20-year term Hammond received is the same as Tavon White, the Black Guerrilla Family gang leader, got for attempted murder and orchestrating a racketeering conspiracy at the city jail. It is twice the maximum penalty for killing someone while driving under the influence.
"A chill went from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes," Hammond recalled of the sentencing, in a phone interview from the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup. "I'm standing there like, 'This isn't happening.'"
Hammond said he has struggled with drugs since early in life. He grew up without his father, and other family members struggled with drugs. He and his siblings were placed into foster care, and as a student at Pikesville High School he ran with a group who liked to party.
"That was my way of dealing with my depressed self," he said.
At age 15, Hammond was working at a restaurant and decided he was making enough money to drop out of school and take care of himself. He said he began snorting powder cocaine with co-workers and later was introduced to crack cocaine.
"It was always there for me," he said.
He became addicted. "It's something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. It's so hard to shake," he said.
He was arrested nine times between 2003 and 2008, with four convictions — two for drug possession and two for theft, court records show.
After Hammond's arrest in September 2009 on the distribution charge, attorney David Putzi asked the judge to spare his client jail time. Stewart-Mays said the trade-off would be a suspended sentence that would hang over Hammond's head.
"He doesn't want to be on my probation," she said. "He really doesn't. He really, really doesn't. But just in case, I'll give him 20 [years] suspended. He gets every day of it if he violates."
Hammond had never received more than two months in jail for his four prior convictions.
Hammond knew he had been warned. He said he got himself together, keeping up with his probation agent, working and trying his best to get off drugs. He kicked crack, but substituted marijuana, he said. He stayed out of trouble for more than two years.
On the night of April 6, 2012, Hammond got into an argument with his girlfriend and a neighbor called police. Hammond had a small bag of marijuana, and an officer saw him try to toss it to the ground, according to court documents. Hammond was arrested and taken to Central Booking.
Hammond arrived for his court date without a lawyer and asked Gatewood for a postponement. Gatewood asked the prosecutor how much marijuana was in question.
"Your honor, it was one bag," the prosecutor replied.
"A trash bag or ...?" Gatewood asked.
"It was gross weight 5.9 grams."
Gatewood said he wouldn't postpone such a trivial case, according to the transcript. The prosecutor said he was seeking 30 days' jail time, and Gatewood complained about the waste of taxpayer money.
"The state's satisfied with guilty and a fine, your honor," Assistant State's Attorney Michael Brown said.
"There you go, Mr. Hammond. You don't want you to go to jail; I don't either," Gatewood said, moving the case along without Hammond having representation. "I will impose a fine of $100 in court cost."
"I really wasn't under the impression that this fine that I accepted to pay would be a guilty finding," Hammond says now. "I thought the fine would negate any other trouble at all."
Gatewood told Hammond to "be smarter."
Two months later, Hammond received notice of a violation of probation in the case before Stewart-Mays.
At a May 21, 2013, hearing, prosecutor Michael Leedy read a summary of Hammond's marijuana arrest and Hammond didn't dispute it. Leedy asked that the court revoke his probation and "impose a substantial portion" of the remaining 19 years, 11 months and 29 days.
Hammond's attorney, Lisa Gladden, told Stewart-Mays that he had done well on probation. "And but for the marijuana charge, he's pretty good," Gladden said.
"This court understands that marijuana is not the crime of the century," Stewart-Mays said. "And the court understands that somehow, some way, not that I agree or disagree ... that marijuana has become a little more accepted.
"However, when you are on probation, your freedoms are restricted. So what may be commonly accepted for one, you can't do, because you're on probation."
Hammond said he was working, supporting two children and had moved out of the city to get away from bad influences.
"I'm just asking, your honor, if you can just reinstate me so I can prove to you that I am a good citizen," he said. "I do pay taxes. I work very hard at taking care of everything, all my family, the best that I can. ... I'm just — I'm at the mercy of the court, your honor."
Stewart-Mays handed down the sentence and ended the hearing.
Putzi said Stewart-Mays is known for being tough. She often asks defendants to accept a sentence upfront or face the entirety of a sentence "on the back end, should there be a violation."
"The vast majority of judges do not sentence like that," Putzi said. "But there are some that hold it out there, and you know going in what you're going to get."
Hopkins, Hammond's current attorney, said Stewart-Mays fails to recognize "the challenges our clients face and the environment they live in."
"She's setting them up to fail and calling it justice," Hopkins said.
Stewart-Mays did not respond to requests for comment.
Chief Judge Alfred J. Nance will hear Hammond's appeal.
Hammond said he has been going to church and getting an education while in prison. He earned a GED and is taking classes at Goucher College.
He has a job waiting for him on the outside. Mark Lee, who has known Hammond for 10 years and said Hammond worked 80-hour weeks to help him open a Federal Hill takeout, said he's kept his spot open since his arrest.
"He's a good worker," Lee said. "He made one mistake, and that was it."
Hammond's children are now 4 and 2, and ask when they visit him why he isn't home.
"Daddy was bad, and this is what happens when you're bad," he tells them.