Eighteen years for 18 grams of marijuana.
That's the prison sentence Gary Howard received after he was arrested in 2013 and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and illegal possession of a firearm. He was acquitted of the gun charge but, because of his status as a repeat offender, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison on the other count—a year for every gram of marijuana—without the possibility of parole.
The Louisiana Supreme Court, in an opinion issued Wednesday, upheld Howard's sentence, but the chief justice of the state's high court, Bernette Johnson, wrote a scathing dissent:
I find it outrageous that defendant's conviction of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, and sentence of 18 years imprisonment without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence, resulting from the discovery of a mere 18 grams of marijuana, will be allowed to stand. Considering the rapidly relaxing social attitudes toward the use of marijuana, the increasing number of states whose voters have approved the recreational use of marijuana,1 and changing laws (even in Louisiana)2 providing more lenient penalties relative to marijuana possession, the result of this case is even more ridiculous[…]
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.
Sentences like Howard's are currently at the heart of a battle in Louisiana to change the state's notoriously punitive criminal justice system. Louisiana currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and state governor John Bel Edwards has made it one of his first-term goals to cut the state's prison population enough that it drops to number two in the ignominious rankings.
As I reported earlier this year, Edwards has been joined by a bipartisan group of legislators, business and evangelical groups, criminal justice organizations, and law enforcement officials that all support overhauling the state's criminal justice system. A state task force released a set of recommendations in March that would have intro more rigorous felony classification system, reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes and expanded eligibility for parole and drug courts. Also, those sentenced to life without parole as juveniles would be eligible for parole, bringing the state in line with a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that declared such sentences unconstitutional.
However, state district attorneys have fiercely opposed many of those proposals, especially any that would give inmates convicted of violent felonies any shot at an early release or parole.
On Wednesday, Edwards and state prosecutors struck a compromise that would water down or delay the most sweeping changes being proposed, as well as scrap release opportunities for almost all of the roughly 5,000 Louisiana inmates serving life without parole.
Many criminal justice experts, like Rob Smith, director of Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project, argue that almost all offenders eventually age out of crime. (Louisiana Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, who also favors reforms, likes to call it "criminal menopause.")
"People change; often profoundly so," Smith says. "The package of bills in Louisiana would simply provide some of Louisiana's longest serving prisoners with an opportunity to show that they have earned a second chance."
"Ultimately, though, the failing in Louisiana is on two levels," Smith continues. "The legislature has passed some of the most draconian sentencing laws in the country, and the Louisiana courts have failed to meaningfully engage with these extremely harsh sanctions. It is the role and duty of the judiciary to protect people from excessive infringements on their right to liberty and to ensure that sentences are not so needlessly cruel as to undermine the basic obligation of the government to affirm the dignity of all of its citizens."
Until Louisiana can get everyone—including district attorneys—to agree that its system needs changing, people like Howard will still serve years in prison for drugs, and the state will no doubt hold on to its world title in carceral enthusiasm.