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Life In Prison For Selling $20 Of Cannabis And 13 Years For Two Joints? Louisiana Is Out Of Control

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by April M. Short

on March 5, 2015

Louisiana is apparently living in a draconian time warp. The majority of the country is loosening its cannabis laws and turning to rational drug policies that don’t waste resources on targeting the use of this relatively safe herb with proven healing properties. Meanwhile, Louisiana continues to crack down on non-violent, petty offenders with some of the harshest cannabis laws in the nation.

Bernard Noble, a father of seven, has served almost four years in a Louisiana prison  as part of a 13-year sentence he was dealt for the possession of two joints. He has no prospect of parole, since Louisiana has one of the harshest cannabis laws in the country. Possession of any amount up to 60 pounds can earn you six months in jail on a first offense. A second offense can mean up to five years in prison, and a third up to 20 years. As Phillip Smith of AlterNet reported recently, “Because Noble had two previous drug possession offenses, one 12 years old and one 24 years old, he fell under the purview of the habitual offender law.”

In Louisiana, if you’re black, like Noble,  the odds are stacked much more heavily against you. You’ll be 3.1 times more likely to be arrested for than your white counterpart. Black people in Louisiana account for about two-thirds of all cannabis-related arrests but they account for less than one-third of the population. This creates a “pipeline to prison for black Louisianans,” Smith notes in his article.

Noble’s sentencing judge gave him a five year sentence last year, due to his minor criminal history, good work record and the fact that he supports a family with seven children (and his overpayment of child support to children not living with him). But last year local prosecutors appealed the lower sentence to the state Supreme Court and Noble’s full 13-year sentence was reinstated.

As Smith reports, the situation has torn Noble’s family apart “and destroyed his fledgling business, a restaurant in Kansas City. Noble had relocated there after Hurricane Katrina and had just returned to New Orleans for a family visit. He left his grandmother’s house on a bike ride four years ago and never made it back. He’s been locked up ever since.”

This week, Noble’s lawyers are preparing to formally seek a commutation to reduce his sentence from Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). Civil rights advocates have organized a rally for Sunday to draw attention to his case.

“This is one of the most egregious cases, a real heart breaker,”  said Yolanda Cadore, director of strategic partnerships for the Drug Policy Alliance. “He’s been in there 44 months, and he’s not even close to finishing his sentence. He’s just passing time. The only rehab available is drug treatment.”

Unfortunately, Noble’s case is just one of many over-the-top drug sentencing cases in Louisiana. As Smith explains in his piece, Louisiana is one of many US states that has monetary incentives in place to keep its prisons and jails full to capacity. Their policy of  imprisonment for profit began in the 1990s.

“During another overcrowding crisis, parish sheriffs were offered a cut of future profits if they covered the cost of building prisons in their counties,” Smith writes. “Now, more than half of state prisoners are held in parish jail administered by sheriffs. The state pays them $24.39 a day per prisoner, much less than the $55 a day if would cost to house them in state prisons. If a sheriff can keep jails full, he can pull in as much as $200,000 per jail per year, all the while keeping expenses — staffing and inmate care and programs — as low as possible. Other sheriffs lease their prisons to for-profit prison companies in return for guaranteed annual payments.”

Another one of the most egregious cannabis sentences out there came out of Louisiana in 2008. A homeless black man was dealt  life in prison for selling just $20 worth of cannabis to an undercover cop.

As Zaid Jilani reported for AlterNet, “Fate Vincent Winslow, a 41-year-old homeless black man, was hungry on September 5th, 2008. Along with a man he called “Perdue,” he was the target of a sting by an undercover cop pretending to look for marijuana and a prostitute. Although Perdue was never arrested, Winslow was.”

As a result of mandatory minimum sentencing laws (which have undergone reform since Winslow’s sentencing in 2008), the  judge was able to use Winslow’s previous non-violent convictions (burglaries at age 17 and 26, and cocaine possession in 2004)  to rationalize the extreme sentence of life imprisonment with hard labor.

In her bestselling book The New Jim Crow, civil rights lawyer, advocate and legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains in detail how poor communities of color are disproportionately targeted by our nation’s law enforcement due to the War on Drugs.

Regarding mandatory minimum sentencing laws, Alexander writes:

“People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told —  but herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you  have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living  room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”