Judge Calls 18-Year Sentence for Pot 'Outrageous'

By Paul Gaita 05/11/17

A Louisiana judge issued a dissent blasting the lengthy sentence a local man received for being in possession of 18 grams of pot. 

man holding a bag of marijuana buds.

A near-two-decade sentence for 18 grams of marijuana provoked a Supreme Court chief justice in Louisiana to deliver a blistering dissent in which she called the decision "ridiculous" and "outrageous."

Chief Justice Bernadette Johnson issued the dissent on May 3rd in response to a jury's 2014 conviction of Gary D. Howard on marijuana possession with intent to distribute; Johnson's two previous convictions—which included possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in 2008—earned him habitual offender status and a sentence of 18 years in prison without the possibility of parole.

In her dissent, Johnson highlighted the financial burden imposed upon taxpayers to imprison Howard for such a length of time, which has become an issue of significance among state lawmakers seeking to revise Louisiana's highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate.

Johnson was arrested in 2013 during a search of his girlfriend's home in Shreveport, Louisiana, where police found 18 grams of marijuana packaged in five baggies, as well as a firearm in a bedroom closet. Though the Supreme Court's majority ruled that there was enough evidence to support the charge of intent to distribute, Johnson noted in her dissent that a prosecution expert testified that the marijuana may have been for Howard's personal use, and may also have been purchased in the same form that police found it. 

"Legally, the state proved nothing more than simple possession of marijuana in this case," she wrote. More disconcerting was the decision to hand down a sentence that, either by coincidence or an "arbitrary" decision on the part of prosecution and jury, that amounted to a year of jail time for each ounce of marijuana found in Howard's possession. Johnson suggested that the punitive tone was set during the arrest by officers who "overreacted" to the discovery of the firearm, for which Howard was subsequently acquitted.

"As a practical matter, in light of the inconsequential amount of marijuana found, imprisoning [the] 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," wrote Johnson in her dissent.

While some point to the previous weapons charge as enough motivation for a stricter sentence—in an editorial on the conservative website Hot Air, Weekend Editor Jazz Shaw notes that the previous convictions, including the gun possession from 2008, would constitute Howard's labeling as a habitual offender—the sentence runs contrary to legislation that Governor John Bel Edwards is hoping to introduce as a means of reducing Louisiana's incarceration rate and prison population. New guidelines proposed by a task force assembled by the governor suggest that low-level drug charges such as the one incurred by Howard should not count toward a charge of habitual offender, which currently carries a requirement of doubling the sentence for conviction on a new crime within a decade of an old felony conviction.

The governor's initiative seeks to revise Louisiana's reputation as the state with the highest per capita incarceration rate in the country. Currently, there are 816 people in Louisiana prison for every 100,000 residents, which amounts to more than 375,000 individuals, or double the national average. The state sends more people to prison for drug, property and other non-violent crimes than neighboring South Carolina or Florida, and is on track to spend more than $600 million on corrections by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2017. 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.