Weight of the State

Serving 15 years in prison for a non-violent drug offense, Ryan Troxler embodies everything that advocates want to change about Kentucky’s persistent felony offender statute.

Weight of the State
Independent Lens
Premiere Date
February 3, 2022
15:52 minutes
Funding Initiative
Short-Form Series and Special Projects
Headshot of Marlon Johnson

Marlon Johnson

Marlon Johnson is an eleven-time Emmy award-winning producer and director. He earned a degree in communications from the University of Miami. He has directed several feature documentaries, illuminating the crossroads between the arts and social justice. His most recent feature, River City Drumbeat, was named a New York Times Critic's Pick.

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The Film

Ryan Troxler is serving a 15-year sentence in a Kentucky prison for a non-violent drug offense. He was arrested for selling ten oxycodone pills, but because of prior charges, his 5-year sentence was extended to ten years under the state’s persistent felony offender (PFO) statute. Commonwealth Attorney Shane Young argues that the PFO sentencing enhancements are necessary to stop habitual criminals. But Robert Lawson, who led the writing of the state’s criminal code, says the PFO laws are being misused and have led to mass incarceration in the state. While their philosophical battle wages on, men and women in similar positions to Ryan remain behind bars. Kentucky’s PFO laws have contributed to a disproportionate number of incarcerated African Americans. The state has an 8% Black population, but 21% of Kentucky’s prisoners are Black. Ryan’s former girlfriend, who was also charged in the drug case, believes that as a white woman she received a far less severe sentence than Ryan, who is Black.

In The Weight of the State, filmmaker Marlon Johnson examines Kentucky's PFO laws, their impact on Kentuckians in the criminal justice system, and the repercussions for family members of the incarcerated. Kentucky initially enacted PFO laws to punish habitual felons committing violent crimes. But with the advent of the war on drugs and in the era of tough-on-crime sentencing laws, the PFO laws have become a weapon used by prosecutors to punish non-violent, low-level drug offenders and addicts who are casualties of an opioid crisis in the region.