By Joy Haviland
Tough habitual offender laws—sentencing persons with three or more felony convictions to long prison terms—have contributed to mass incarceration across the country. Sentences meted out under these laws often shock our conscience.
Yet in a time when over half of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, and adults can legally possess and buy marijuana in four states, habitual offender laws continue to punish those convicted of minor marijuana-related crimes with draconian sentences.
Take the case of Bernard Noble. While riding his bike in New Orleans, police officers stopped and searched him and recovered three grams of marijuana. Because Noble had prior non-violent drug convictions—for small amounts of cocaine and marijuana—he was sentenced in 2011 to a 13.3-year sentence under the state’s habitual offender law.
Or take the case of Jeff Mizanskey. He has spent over two decades in a Missouri prison for possessing five pounds of marijuana. Because it was his third conviction—his two prior convictions were also related to marijuana—he was sentenced to life in prison without parole under the state’s habitual offender law.
Two recent events suggest that some lawmakers are hearing the public cry for reform.
Last week, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon agreed that Mizanskey’s sentence was unnecessarily harsh and commuted his sentence so that he will have an opportunity to get parole.
On Monday, the Louisiana state Senate voted 27-12 on SB 241 to create new, less severe penalties for marijuana possession. A large majority of Louisiana residents support such reform. If passed, Louisiana would join the growing number of states that have recently reduced penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Louisiana maintains the highest incarceration rate in the country and some of the steepest penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under current law, a third or subsequent offense is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. If a person is determined to be a habitual offender, she may face even more time in prison. Indeed, there are ten people in Louisiana serving life sentences for the possession of marijuana.
While this bill is a step in the right direction, the state’s laws will remain some of the harshest in the country, even if this bill passes the House and is signed into law.
As California’s successful campaign to reform its own habitual offender law has made clear, sentencing reform should also include individuals currently serving out harsh sentences. Both Propositions 36 and 47 made new sentencing schemes, including changes to the Three Strikes law, retroactive to allow persons in prison the opportunity to be released early.
The pending bill in Louisiana does not help individuals like Bernard Noble, or Anthony Kelly who received a life sentence for possession of 32 grams of marijuana, or others who remain in prison serving outrageous sentences.
Missouri recently passed legislation that reduced penalties for the possession of marijuana and made changes to its habitual offender law. Jeff Mizanskey was left behind because the sweeping changes were not made retroactive.
Lucky for him, Governor Nixon heard the pleas of Mizanskey and his supporters, noting, “If the laws change after someone is sentenced, then you want to give those things a close look.”
These steps, while important, are only small steps. To really address over incarceration for non-violent drug offenses, habitual offender laws must be rolled back, sentences need to be dramatically reduced and made proportional to the crime, and laws must be applied retroactively to remedy prior wrongs and injustices.
Joy Haviland is a staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance.
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Author: Joy Haviland
Date Published: May 28, 2015
Published by Drug Policy Alliance
Via:: Ddrug Policy Alliance