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Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Destroys This Stupid 18-Year Sentence for 18 Grams of Pot

If you’re wondering why Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world, it’s because of cases like this.

Eighteen years for 18 grams of marijuana.

Jack Kurtz/ZUMA Press/NewscomJack Kurtz/ZUMA Press/NewscomThat'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.

Photo Credit: Jack Kurtz/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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  • Hugh Akston||

    Prosecutors have institutional incentives to oppose sentencing reform, not the least of which is that prosecution stats help them get re-elected to higher office.

    Even if they didn't most prosecutors are oily swamp-hearted ghouls with limp dicks for fingers.

  • Hugh Akston||

    I'll leave that up to the reader. My only regret is using the word limp instead of flaccid.

  • Juice||

    If you're connecting oily and swamp, shouldn't it be oily-swamp-hearted?

  • Zeb||

    (oily swamp)-hearted. But I think that "oily, swamp-hearted" reads the best.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    "oily, swamp-hearted" reads the best.
    I agree. That's how I punctuated when it was my nickname in high school.

  • ||

    not the least of which is that prosecution stats help them get re-elected to higher office.

    I'm not entirely certain that this is now or has ever been true except in highly politically conscious voters and higher-office-minded prosecutor echo chambers. I've never seen a race come down to no. of trials or no. of convictions comparison and would be surprised if most of the time the majority of voters even know/knew at all. It sounds and feels a lot like an Citizens United truism where the candidate with the most and largest investors always wins.

  • Zeb||

    Well, the do it for some reason. I think elections have something to do with it in places where they are elected. It also seems likely that they are just bullies and it makes them feel big and important to send people to prison for a long time.

  • Zeb||

    Pictured is a typical prosecutor with limp dicks for fingers.

  • Hugh Akston||

    That guy got beat up by grade school bullies until he was 37.

  • Juice||

    So glad I left that state long ago never to look back.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    The Louisiana justice system seems like a real piece of work.

  • Zeb||

    Isn't it based on the French system or something, rather than English common law like most states?

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    There are some quirks but criminal law is basically the same.

  • Zeb||

    I looked it up in Wikipedia and it seems that it's just the civil/private law that is based in part on the French system.

  • Not a True MJG||

    Sweet! I'm glad this poor guy will not have to suffer 18 years in--

    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:

    Oh... so you were using "destroyed" in the metaphorical, clickbaity sense. IOW, ineffectual screeching into the wind. Bummer.

  • DenverJ||

    Louisiana currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world...

    USA! USA!

  • Cynical Asshole||

    I think that's the only thing Louisiana is number 1 in. Except maybe illiteracy. Or did they finally pass Mississippi?

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    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

    It's nice that Louisiana law made a cameo in the dissent.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    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...

    Intent to distribute? For 18 GRAMS?! I thought they could only reasonably claim* "intent to distribute" if the amount of pot was such that the person couldn't reasonably consume it all by themselves. Or was he caught in the act of actually trying to sell the pot in question (possibly to an undercover cop)? Seems like a case of bullshit overcharging unless he was actually caught dealing.

    *And of course that's all they can do is "claim" since it's physically impossible to prove another person's intent.

  • Lord_at_War||

    Here in Ohio, you usually need a lot more weight- but if you have that 18 grams in two separate baggies, you will get an "intent" charge so they can force a plea...

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Not sure what the law is in Colorado*, but usually when I see/ hear about someone getting nailed with intent to distribute it's because they had several pounds of the stuff.

    *Yes, weed is legal here, but highly regulated and you can't sell it unless you operate a licensed dispensary (you can, however, share up to an ounce with a friend so long as no filthy dirty money changes hands), so people do still get busted with pot offenses, just not nearly as much as in other places.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    The comments here crack me up.

    Seems like a case of bullshit overcharging unless he was actually caught dealing.

    Unless dude is caught in the act of selling the pile of dimebags, who's to know why he has them, or that shitty postal scale?

  • Zeb||

    In some states, CA is correct about intent to distribute depending on quantity only. I don't know about Louisiana.

    In any case, charging anyone with possession of any drug is bullshit overcharging.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    Which states?

  • Zeb||

    Maybe I'm confusing it with automatically assuming intent to distribute for amounts over a certain threshold.

    Anyway, maybe the guy just likes to portion it out so he can better regulate his consumption. That seems like a reasonable doubt on "intent to distribute" to me.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    Maybe I'm confusing it with automatically assuming intent to distribute for amounts over a certain threshold.

    This is the difference between stabbing someone in the face being automatically Murder 1 and stabbing someone in the face being the only Murder 1.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Unless dude is caught in the act of selling the pile of dimebags, who's to know why he has them, or that shitty postal scale?

    Maybe he's anal retentive about measuring out his weed in discrete "doses"? I don't know if anyone's tried using that defense or if it would really fly with a jury. Probably would depend on how much weed we're talking about. 18 GRAMS? Not ounces, GRAMS. That's ~0.6 ounces. Here in CO that would be perfectly legal so long as he didn't spark up in public. In LA apparently it gets you slapped with 18 years for "intent to distribute". Fucking ridiculous.

    In general, I don't see how you can prove someone's intentions beyond a reasonable doubt unless you're a mind reading warlock or you have actual evidence.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    In LA apparently it gets you slapped with 18 years for "intent to distribute". Fucking ridiculous.

    No, it's the "intent to distribute" that gets you for "intent to distribute." LA has a remarkably high prison population but it's still only a small fraction of what it'd be if half an ounce was automatically "intent"

    or you have actual evidence.

    The pile of baggies is "actual evidence."

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    JFC you autists have me defending the people who gave a guy selling dimebags 20 years.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    The pile of baggies is "actual evidence."

    WHAT FUCKING PILE OF BAGGIES? The article doesn't specify how many baggies the weed was in, you're just assuming that it was. If you have a source besides your blind assumption, then link to it or STFU.

    you autists

    OK, whatever. Fuck off, shithead troll.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    That linked legal opinion may lay out the facts of the case. Just a guess.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Fuck me:

    We find that, while the quantity of marijuana is small, its packaging in conjunction with other indicia of drug trafficking found nearby...

    The officers found defendant in bed. They also found 11 grams of marijuana, in four separate bags inside a larger bag tied around the waistband of his boxer shorts (which were on the floor), another bag containing 7 grams of marijuana inside the bedroom closet, and a box of sandwich bags sitting on a TV stand in the bedroom.

    Fine, intent to distribute it is. You could have just pointed that out earlier.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    I didn't read it earlier.

  • timeconsumer||

    11 in 4 bags? I can't figure out a reasonable distribution considering the standard sizes are 1.75, 3.5, and 7. Maybe 2x 3.5 and 2x 1.75 and they rounded up from 10.5 to 11.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    It's the smallest "jeweler's bag" stuffed full.

  • Sigivald||

    18 grams is about 5/8 oz.

    That's a large but not remotely implausible personal stash, for a serious smoker.

    I'd not assume "selling" unless they were individually bagged.

    (I can't find a definition of "intent to distribute" in the Louisiana Code, so God only knows what the legal line might or might not be.

    So vagueness is a problem right there unless all convictions involve actual distribution or a confession.)

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    This is the shit I'm talking about.

    I'd not assume "selling" unless they were individually bagged.

    .... ... YA THINK?! Of course he had a bunch of baggies. Either that or half of LA is in prison.

  • ||

    That's a large but not remotely implausible personal stash, for a serious smoker.

    Really? Not being a consumer, this seems hilariously wrong. I can't remember the last time I smoked tobacco but I'm certain it was more than 18 grams worth at the time. It can't be more than 1-2 cigarettes worth.

    That or the million-dollar bales of stuff DEA agents pose on top of must be absolute shit relative to whatever solid gold product this guy was carrying.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    18 grams worth at the time. It can't be more than 1-2 cigarettes worth.

    My thoughts have turned to murder.

  • Zeb||

    One gram of weed is 1 good sized joint. Cigarettes have about a gram of tobacco in them.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    I'd not assume "selling" unless they were individually bagged.

    And we don't know if that was the case here or not. Given that prosecutors everywhere love overcharging defendants in order to scare them into accepting plea deals, it wouldn't surprise me if that's what was really happening here. Some folks seem more inclined to assume this guy had his weed in multiple baggies. OTOH, I choose to assume that the prosecutor was a sniveling shit weasel who was throwing as many charges as he could get away with at him.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    And we don't know if that was the case here or not.

    Yes, we do.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    I clicked a link.

    They also found 11 grams of
    marijuana, in four separate bags inside a larger bag tied around the waistband of
    his boxer shorts (which were on the floor), another bag containing 7 grams of
    marijuana inside the bedroom closet, and a box of sandwich bags sitting on a TV
    stand in the bedroom. Also inside the closet, the officers found a gun, some 1x1
    jeweler bags, and an empty prescription bottle with a small baggie inside
    containing marijuana residue.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    WHAT FUCKING PILE OF BAGGIES? The article doesn't specify how many baggies the weed was in, you're just assuming that it was. If you have a source besides your blind assumption, then link to it or STFU.

    Some folks seem more inclined to assume this guy had his weed in multiple baggies. OTOH, I choose to assume

    I'm just assuming, you guys.

  • Zeb||

    You need to relax, buddy. This is some people blowing off steam on the internet, not a law journal.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    Huh? How on earth can you read that comment and think I'm the one that needs to relax?

  • MWG||

    "Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice DESTROYS This Stupid 18-Year Sentence for 18 Grams of Pot"

    Lame Buzzfeedish headline is lame. That is all.

  • ||

    That is being generous. I would call this headline fucking stupid. But then again, this is Reason. The poor guys doing 18 years for some fucking weed doesn't think of this opinion as "destroyed." You'd think that "destroyed" would be used in an article in which the defendant went free.

  • MWG||

    It's along the lines of those articles before November about how "so and so DETROYED Trump", yet here we are.

  • ||

    Hey come on fellow Libertarians, at least they acquitted the person of the gun charge!!!

    Obviously, Louisiana views gun rights more favorably than marijuana trafficking. Up here in the northeast the person would have probably got life for gun + marijuana + prior.

    Progress?

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