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And justice for all… Reforming marijuana laws in Louisiana

13th May 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Marjorie R. Esman
Guest Columnist

The growing movement to reform marijuana laws is the outgrowth of a dramatic shift in attitude that has occurred across a generation. After decades of severe criminal penalties for even simple possession of marijuana, a national survey conducted by the Pew Center for Research, released in April of 2013, confirms what we already know: marijuana is more widely accepted today than in 1970 when President Nixon an­nounced his “war on drugs.” It also reports that the majority of Americans (72%) think that government efforts to enforce current marijuana laws aren’t worth it. Republicans and Democrats agree that current laws aren’t working. In the survey, Demo­crats and Republicans agreed, 71 percent and 67 percent respectively, that the cost of trying to enforce current marijuana legislation isn’t worth the effort.

In the United States, currently 2.3 million people are incarcerated. Prison populations are at alarming and even dangerous levels and much of the blame can be put on the way the criminal justice system deals with drug offenses. Approximately 25 percent or 500,000 of those behind bars are there for drug offenses. Some are serving unfairly long sentences for minor, non-violent offenses because of rigid and outdated legislation that forces the courts to impose unduly harsh sentences.

War on Drugs A War on Communities of Color

A disproportionate number of those serving time in U.S. jails are people of color. That is especially true with drug offenses. America’s full court press on fighting drugs has had a particularly negative effect on ethnic communities. African Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at 10 times the rates of whites, even though whites engage in drug offenses at a higher rate. According to information compiled by the National Correc­tions Reporting Program, in 2003, Louisiana’s prisons admitted African Americans at a rate more than four times greater than whites for drug offenses. The number is smaller for Hispanics, but still way out of proportion. The war on drugs has become a war on communities of color. Law enforcement agencies unfairly target African-American and Latino communities creating this staggering disparity. This type of racial profiling affects not only the families and their community, but the community at large. At the end of the day it’s costing society more to incarcerate people for these minor offenses than it’s worth.

Making the Case for Reform in Louisiana

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world and a Department of Corrections with a budget of almost $700 million – almost twice the budget for the entire LSU system. Yet we still have a high rate of violent crime, which is not solved by the increased penalties we impose on people who are not violent and pose no danger to society. In Louisiana, unfair three-strike laws have landed individuals in jail for life without parole for simple marijuana possession. Someone with two prior convictions, which can be for things as minor as calling a parole office a day late, can send someone to prison forever for simply possessing a small amount of marijuana for personal use. Laws requiring Mandatory minimum sentences generate disproportionately long sentences and often tie judges’ hands in considering the individual circumstances of a case. Meanwhile, nonviolent people who pose no danger to society risk spending their lives in state prison.

Faced with a growing realization that the war on drugs hasn’t made us any safer, the criminal justice system is looking for fixes and forward thinking legislators around the country are taking advantage of this opening to introduce drug reform legislation. In Louisiana, House Bill 103, introduced during the current legislative session by Representative Austin Badon of New Orleans is headed to the full house. Although amended, if successful the bill would reduce sentences for marijuana possession and make it more difficult for simple marijuana possession to be used under the Habitual Offender laws.

On the fiscal side and before amendments, HB 103 was projected to save Louisiana more than $70 million a year, according to data supplied by the state Department of Corrections. This is more than 10 percent of the DOC budget from 2010. By allowing earlier release, people convicted of minor marijuana offenses will be able to return to their families and become productive members of society again, rather than remaining incarcerated. This will increase the stability of their families and communities at no cost to public safety.

Changing the Culture of Incarceration

Our criminal justice system must end its fascination with locking people up. We must create a new culture where incarceration is based on the overriding threat to public safety, not fear, racism and retribution. We must focus our law enforcement efforts on people who are dangerous, not those whose offenses have no victims. The money spent on incarcerating people for minor drug offenses would be better spent on education and treatment programs, public health campaigns, counseling, and other programs aimed at keeping people out of the criminal justice system. In Louisiana, now is the time to focus our limited corrections resources on severe and violent crime. We all want to be safe. We need to focus on people who are dangers to society, not on those who do no harm. Our future depends on it.

This article originally published in the May 13, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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