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Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Blasts 18-Year Marijuana Prison Sentence

    A cell at an unidentified jail. (Chris / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    A cell at an unidentified jail. (Chris / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In 2013, Gary D. Howard was arrested with 18 grams of marijuana, and in 2014, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison without the possibility of parole. This week, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld that punishment.

Bernette Johnson, the state’s chief justice, blasted the opinion in a dissent Wednesday, calling the decision to uphold the verdict “outrageous” and “ridiculous.”

The 2013 offence occurred when police searched the home of Howard’s girlfriend and found the 18 grams—about the amount in 18 marijuana cigarettes. Howard was charged with intent for distribution. Johnson wrote: “Legally, the state proved nothing more than simple possession of marijuana in this case.”

The Associated Press reports:

A jury convicted Gary D. Howard of marijuana possession with intent to distribute and a Caddo Parish judge sentenced him as a habitual offender in 2014. Howard’s previous convictions include possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in 2008.

Johnson questioned whether it was a mere coincidence – or an “arbitrary” decision – that Howard’s sentence amounted to one year per gram of marijuana that police found during a 2013 search of his girlfriend’s home in Shreveport.

“As a practical matter, in light of the inconsequential amount of marijuana found, imprisoning defendant for this extreme length of time at a cost of about $23,000 per year (costing our state over $400,000 in total) provides little societal value and only serves to further burden our financially strapped state and its tax payers,” she wrote.

The decision comes as state lawmakers consider an overhaul of criminal sentencing laws aimed at reducing Louisiana’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate. Bills that would limit penalties under the state’s habitual offender law are among the package of proposed reforms.

At the time of arrest, police also found a firearm in a bedroom closet. Howard was later acquitted of the weapons charge.

The United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of the world’s incarceration rate. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Le Monde reports that one in 86 adults—double the national average—ends up behind bars in The Pelican State.

In 2014, African-Americans made up 76 percent of the state’s prison population. In New Orleans, one out of 14 black men is behind bars.

More than half of all newly sentenced prisoners in Louisiana are convicted of drug possession, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The state’s $182 million private prison industry thrives on these imprisonments. Essentially, in Louisiana, incarceration has become a private business.

— Posted by Donald Kaufman.

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