In further proof of the very wide range of marijuana laws and application from state to state, the Louisiana Supreme Court is taking heat for upholding an 18-year sentence for possession of 18 grams of marijuana. Not mincing words in her dissent, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson ripped her colleagues for backing the harsh sentencing, citing significant shifts in attitudes towards cannabis both in Louisiana and around the rest of the country. With the case instantly drawing national attention, it highlights the ongoing battle against draconian prison sentencing by advocacy groups and government officials like Johnson, particularly within states like. Louisiana that have had little change in cannabis laws despite the changing national sentiment.
Originally sentenced in 2014 for possession with the intent to distribute, Gary Howard was picked up in 2013 for having cannabis that was separated in plastic bags and also had a limited prior record, including a gun charge back in 2008. While Johnson argued that this was not enough to derive intent to distribute, that was hardly the only criticism levied by the angered chief justice, who also asserted the arbitrary nature of the 18-year sentence that appeared directly tied to the 18 grams of marijuana. Johnson suggested that the court was holding Johnson’s prior gun charge against him in sentencing, which she found inherently inappropriate considering that the previous charge did not lead to a conviction.
The 18-year sentence itself isn’t the only reason that Chief Justice Johnson and cannabis advocacy groups are outraged. Not only is Howard set to spend nearly two decades in prison, he also will not be eligible for parole, suspension of sentence or probation, which are often allowed for crimes widely considered to be much more severe. In Louisiana’s felony system that breaks up crimes into seven categories, non-violent offenders are frequently released after 25% of a sentence while even some violent offenders have their sentences commuted after 55% of time served. Additionally, some sex offenders are even allowed to be released after 75% of a sentence.
More than just questioning the legality and seemingly arbitrary nature of the court’s decision, Johnson further lambasted the court on practical terms, citing the extremely high cost of holding a prisoner for nearly two decades. Johnson pointed out that the average inmate costs $23,000 a year, which will add up to more than $400,000 over the course of Howard’s sentence before inflation is calculated into the equation. Even if the sentencing wasn’t arbitrary or against cultural sentiment, Johnson argues that it still reinforces an impractical legal system that leaves taxpayers with the extensive bill.
This line of criticism also falls right in line with justice reform advocates that point out the often ludicrous spending on incarceration. By 2015, the price tag of federal prisoners had swollen from around $1 billion in the mid-1980s to nearly $7 billion thanks to more than eight times the number of federal prisoners. By comparison, a review by the Prison Policy Institute pointed out that states have seen an even more radical increase in incarceration rates over the same time span, with much of the trend having to do with the ongoing war against drugs. Additionally, states like Louisiana and Alabama have consistently held higher incarceration rates than the national average.
While the tug of war over sentencing continues, Johnson also offered her own idea of what sentencing should be in this case, once again reflecting a shift in attitudes towards cannabis in particular, and drug offenders in general. Citing the lack of evidence that Howard had any intent to distribute, Johnson said that a more appropriate action would be to clear Howard’s conviction and replace it with a more standardized possession verdict, dramatically lightening his sentencing. Although Gary Howard isn’t likely to be the last to have a harsh sentence related to cannabis possession, high-ranking officials, even in largely anti-marijuana states like Louisiana, continue to highlight the many issues with such severe sentencing.