In this installment, we take a look at some of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force's recommendations to reduce Louisiana's prison population. As of now, we know of six recommendations that were not unanimously agreed on by the task force (the recommendations that were unanimously agreed upon have not been reported). The recommendations that we know of are as follows:
- “Geriatric parole” for inmates serving life sentences. More specifically, recommending that lifer inmates be given the opportunity for parole after serving 30 years or turning 50 years old.
- Same as #1, but applies to inmates serving long (but not life) sentences who have served 20 years or turned 45 years old.
- Giving lifer inmates who were sentenced for crimes committed as a juvenile the automatic opportunity for parole.
- Making inmates convicted of crimes of violence parole-eligible after serving a shorter percentage of their sentence
- Limiting the use of the Louisiana Habitual Offender Law to cases where the first felony conviction was for a crime of violence
- Eliminating 10-year mandatory minimum for a violation of LSA-R.S. 14:95.1
My understanding is that the district attorney on the task force (representing the Louisiana District Attorneys Association) objected to all of these recommendations. Can't say that I'm surprised. Their mentality is perfectly summed up by a quote in this article: “There's not a single person we did not put in prison that did not deserve to be there.” Really!!?!? Not a SINGLEone? I find that exceedingly difficult to believe and swallow.
To that end, I present the case of Bernard Noble. He was found to be in possession of two joints, and was subsequently charged with fourth offense possession of marijuana, a felony in Louisiana. He also had two previous convictions for possessing small amounts of cocaine. Mr. Noble exercised his constitutional right to trial by jury and was convicted accordingly on May 17, 2011.
The state filed a multiple offender bill of information alleging that Mr. Noble was a third felony offender. As a third felony offender, the statutorily available minimum sentence on a fourth offense possession of marijuana conviction was 13 1/3 years at hard labor! Judge Terry Alarcon (now retired) opted to sentence Mr. Noble to a term of imprisonment of five years at hard labor, which was his right to do in “exceptional” circumstances. One can only assume that he recognized the absurdity of the situation.
Unsurprisingly, the state objected and appealed to the appellate court. Surprisingly, the appellate court eventually agreed with Judge Alarcon and his successor Judge Franz Zibilich (who agreed with Alarcon and resentenced Mr. Noble to five years after the case was remanded the first time). Unsurprisingly, the state appealed again to the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote, found that the courts below erred and remanded for “resentencing to a term of imprisonment not less than the mandatory minimum term required by law.” The opinion (attached for review) is callous sophistry and unconvincing justification at their worst. The court stressed that the class of persons entitled to a departure from a mandatory minimum sentence is “exceedingly narrow,” gave exactly zero shits that Mr. Noble's criminal history consisted solely consisted of non-violent possession of small amounts of cocaine and marijuana, and completely dismissed the trial judge's reasons from departing from the mandatory minimum. About three months ago (for reasons that I do not know), Mr. Noble was resentenced to eight years at hard labor without the possibility of parole. Apparently the district attorney listened to the better angels of his nature and softened his position a bit. So…..Mr. Noble went from 6 2/3 years in prison per joint to 4 years a joint. Small victories, right?
This is an extreme case, and commentators have even opined that this case was at least partially responsible for the Legislature reducing maximum penalties for marijuana possession last session. However, the district attorney has the ultimate authority as to how to prosecute offenders and when to file multiple bills after conviction. The current Orleans Parish district attorney has become very well-known for his use of the Habitual Offender Law; he employs it more than any other prosecutor in the state. I think it is truly asinine to conclude that Mr. Noble deserved to spend 13 1/3 years in state prison for possession of 3 grams of marijuana. There are plenty of (admittedly often less egregious) similar examples from across the state. For the district attorney on the task force to say that he hasn't put a single person in prison that did not belong to be there is laughable. Louisiana prisons are filled with offenders that are non-violent, have problems with drugs or alcohol, or both. I'm fairly confident that at least SOME of those guys do not deserve to be in prison.