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Group pressures Jindal to commute 13-year sentence of man convicted of having two joints

28th December 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Della Hasselle
Contributing Writer

In 2010, New Orleans native Bernard Noble was pulled over in the Broadmoor area while riding his bicycle. Police arrested him, saying he was in possession of 2.8 grams of marijuana, or roughly two joints’ worth of pot.

Noble, now a 49-year-old father of seven children, was sentenced to 13 years in prison without the possibility of parole. The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office requested the maximum sentence allowed by Louisiana law at the time.

Now, more than four years later, the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization that seeks drug policy reforms in the 50 states, is calling for his reprieve.

Noble was eligible for what critics say is draconian sentencing under a rule called the habitual offender law, which in 2010 allowed for his long jail time because Noble had been convicted of prior drug-related crimes, including two prior felony convictions.

At the time, it didn’t matter that his prior felonies were decades old, were for possessing small amounts of cocaine and marijuana, and that Noble wasn’t charged with any violent crimes.

That rule changed over the summer, when Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law a bill that dramatically changes how sentencing affects defendants who are arrested for marijuana possession. The law, HB 149, makes it a misdemeanor rather than a felony for a second offense of marijuana possession.

Under the new rules, first-time offenders can also erase their first conviction for possessing marijuana if they don’t re-offend within two years.

Had the law passed this year, instead of in 2010, Noble would be free from jail already. Even under Louisiana’s habitual offender law, Noble would have only had to serve between roughly 16 months and four years.

But because the law isn’t retroactive, only a gubernatorial reprieve can allow for Noble’s release.

Now, Daniel Abrahamson, senior legal advisor for the Drug Policy Alliance, on Monday wrote Jindal asking him to exercise his power of office by staying Noble’s “unjust” sentence and setting him free.

The organization pointed to the Louisiana Constitution, which grants the governor “absolute” power to issue reprieves of persons convicted of crimes against the state.

“The sentence inflicted by Louisiana on Mr. Noble for simple, low-level marijuana possession, on a gainfully employed father with absolutely no history of any serious or violent crime, is a travesty,” Abrahamson said in a statement. “Mr. Noble’s sentence does not enhance public safety. It has devastated Mr. Noble and his family. And it flies in the face of what Louisianans believe and what current law provides. Governor Jindal should exercise mercy and use his power as Governor to advance fairness, justice and compassion by issuing Mr. Noble a sentencing reprieve.”

This isn’t the first time an organization or even judges have petitioned on Noble’s behalf.

After his arrest, two trial judges, Terry Alarcon and Franz Zibilich, sentenced Noble to only five years after hearing his case and finding the mandatory sentence of 13 years “constitutionally excessive.” But the District Attorney’s Office, headed by Leon Cannizzaro, appealed.

Cannizzaro took Noble’s case all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which decided to ultimately give the offender the maximum possible sentence.

Then in March, several groups held a rally in New Orleans in Broadmoor on Noble’s behalf.

“What happened to Mr. Noble is not what our city is working toward. It is not,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry, chair of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, said at the rally, according to

The groups Commonsense NOLA, Louisianans for Responsible Reform and the Orleans Public Defender’s Office also rallied.

Later that spring, Noble’s mother, Elnora Noble, started a petition on asking for Jindal to pardon her son. She described a man who started two businesses, a janitorial service and a restaurant, to support his seven children.

Two of his kids, she added, are ill. His youngest suffers from autism, and another has rheumatoid arthritis.

“The trial judge stated in his ruling that to impose the mandatory sentence ‘will be a greater punishment for his children than for himself,’” Elnora Noble said in the petition, which has so far garnered nearly 68,000 signatures. “It breaks all of their hearts to know he could spend the next 13 years behind bars and away from them.”

In May, Noble petitioned the state Board of Pardons for clemency. It rejected Noble’s request, however, because of a state law that says a prisoner must serve 10 or more years in prison before the board can take up an inmate’s application.

Then, over the summer, Noble pleaded his own case during an interview with Huffington Post. He described growing up in a poor area of Carrollton called Gert Town, in a single-family home, and using crack by the age of 19.

By the time he was 21, he said, he had gotten clean and sober, and was working hard at establishing his restaurant, which specialized in New Orleans cuisine. According to Noble, he wasn’t in possession of marijuana when he got arrested – it had belonged to another man that he was riding his bicycle around with, as he was on his way to buy hot sausage and French bread for the restaurant.

Noble said he blamed the district attorney’s office for his “unfair” sentencing.

“What can one say—we live in a world where people who are living in disadvantaged environments face challenges and situations that seem to never turn out as they do for people in more privileged and un-challenged neighborhoods, they do not have to react to over-zealous officers preying on anyone and everyone who leaves the house, grocery store or friend’s residence,” Noble told Huffington Post. “I believe that this sort of prosecuting does not reflect the public’s interest in having people’s punishment fit the crime, and that this sort of thing flies in the face of justice.”

In a statement to Huffington Post, appearing in the same article, assistant D.A. Christopher S. Bowman at the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office denied Noble’s allegations.

“Mr. Noble has at least four felony convictions as well as countless arrests for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, multiple domestic violence arrests, and possession with the intent to distribute cocaine. Until the most recent conviction, Mr. Noble was the beneficiary of suspended sentences and house arrest. In fact, a judge following one conviction gave Mr. Noble a one-day sentence because the law no longer allowed a suspended sentence as a result of his criminal record,” Bowman said, asking his comment be published in full, according to the website. “Mr. Noble was offered a reasonable plea agreement but refused it because it would have required an actual prison sentence. This D.A.’s office very much believes in rehabilitation, but Mr. Noble is a sad example of someone who squandered countless opportunities to receive that rehabilitation in a non-custodial environment.”

Jindal’s office didn’t immediately return calls to The Louisiana Weekly for this article. On Tuesday, however, Jindal’s Communications Director Mike Reed told Huffington Post it would not say whether or not the governor would grant the reprieve.

In the meantime, Noble adds to a large number of nonviolent offenders who currently fill Louisiana’s prisons.

Officials such as City Council-woman Susan Guidry, chair of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, have long spoken out against Louisiana’s crowded jails, especially because offenders with drug charges and other nonviolent crimes largely occupy them.

Noble’s prison sentence in the Jackson Parish Correctional Center in Jonesboro is also estimated to cost Louisiana taxpayers nearly one-quarter of a million dollars, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

“Not just Mr. Noble and his family are harmed by his current sentence. The state’s taxpayers, too, must unreasonably bear the burden of paying for the long confinement of a non-violent, otherwise law-abiding productive member of their community,” Abrahamson wrote in last week’s letter. “Fairness, justice and compassion necessitate that these shifts in state law not overlook the plight of Mr. Noble.”

This article originally published in the December 28, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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