Chief Justice Bernette Johnson says war on drugs isn't fiscally conservative

By Melissa Busch | May 21, 2017

NEW ORLEANS — The Louisiana Supreme Court’s Chief Justice recently blasted her colleagues for upholding an 18-year prison sentence for a man who was convicted of possessing less than an ounce of marijuana, calling the punishment “ridiculous” and fiscally irresponsible.

After the high court handed down an opinion upholding Gary Howard’s prison term, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote in her dissenting opinion that this sentence and similar sentences will further burden the cash-strapped state. In addition to providing “little societal value,” Johnson said the “inconsequential” amount of marijuana—18 grams—will leave the state paying $23,000 per year, or a total of $400,000, to incarcerate him.  

Seth Bloom, an attorney at Bloom Legal LLC in New Orleans, applauded the Chief Justice’s opinion, especially when many other states across the nation continue to legalize recreational marijuana use.

“Highlighting the economic component of this case further demonstrates the absurdity of a sentence that is unnecessarily harsh on the defendant and burdensome to the taxpayers,” Bloom told the Louisiana Record. "Marijuana charges should not be used to toll against prior convictions whether they are violent or not. Our nation is on a path towards the legalization of marijuana and if our poorest states cannot see the moral argument, then they at least need to see the economic argument.”

Voters in eight states, including California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada, legalized marijuana for adults in the November elections. Earlier this month, marijuana advocates launched a 2018 ballot drive to make Michigan the ninth state to legalize recreational marijuana. It would be the first state in the Midwest to legalize recreational marijuana.

Despite the high cost of Louisiana’s prison system, Bloom said the state has the highest incarceration rate in the nation.

“I’m not an economist, but through a combination of private for-profit prisons and sheriff offices profiting from the prison system, it would seem that the state has made a sustainable business model for both poor parishes, as well as urban areas,” Bloom said.

He noted that recent actions by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to overturn an Obama-era policy under which the Justice Department instructed prosecutors to forgo pursuing the most severe provable charges in certain federal drug cases involving low-level traffickers and non-violent offenders also will eventually impact states.

“Jeff Sessions made his career throwing thousands of mostly people of color in jail for drug charges,” Bloom said. “The case of Gary Howard involves a state crime, not a federal crime, but as federal laws tighten they have a trickle-down effect to state legislatures across the country.

Bloom said Sessions is out of touch with the direction the country is moving in, which he said is proven by the fact that even Louisiana’s legislature is passing criminal justice reform bills.

“The state is tired of being the most incarcerated state in the world, and having outdated and costly protocols for drug charges,” Bloom said. “All over the country people are realizing that addicts need to be granted therapy, care and treatment, and that the policies of Jeff Sessions are inhumane and financially burdensome.”

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