New Orleans City Business reports that Orleans Parish District Attorney Keva Landrum-Johnson has instituted a new policy of charging minor marijuana offenders with felonies if they have prior convictions. Under state law, possessing a small amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor that can result in a jail sentence of up to six months but is typically punished by a small fine. Subsequent offenses can be treated as felonies, punishable by up to five years in prison for a second offense and up to 20 years for a third offense. But Landrum-Johnson's predecessors routinely exercised their discretion to treat such offenses as misdemeanors. The new D.A. has reversed that policy so she can rack up felony prosecutions and demonstrate her tough-on-crime credentials:
Shortly after Keva Landrum-Johnson took over as district attorney…hundreds of new felony cases flooded the public defenders office, overwhelming the 29 defense attorneys.
After New Orleans regained its title as the nation's murder capital, the public demanded its city leaders crack down on violent crime. By filing hundreds of new felony cases each month, it appeared as if the new DA heeded their call.
Unfortunately, this wasn't the case, said Steve Singer, chief of trials for the Orleans Public Defenders Office.
The flood of new felony charges didn't target murderers, rapists or armed robbers— they targeted small-time marijuana users, sometimes caught with less than a gram of pot, and threatened them with lengthy prison sentences.
The resulting impact has clogged the courts with non-violent, petty offenses, drained the resources of the criminal justice system and damaged low-income African-American communities, Singer said.
Nearly all of the people facing felony charges for smoking pot are black and poor, because, as everyone knows, virtually no middle-class white people smoke pot. One defendant cited by the paper is a man who was "arrested once before as a teenager 20 years ago" and since then "has married, raised a family and kept out of trouble." Now he may have to spend the money he saved for his son's college tuition on legal expenses. Take that, crime!
In May I marveled at New York City's little-noticed crackdown on pot smokers, which has a similar racial skew, unjustly converts citable offenses to misdemeanors, but looks enlightened compared to Landrum-Johnson's crusade.
[via Paul Armentano at NORML]