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Ending Marijuana Prohibition

Louisiana Man Serving 13 Years For Two Marijuana Joints

louisiana marijuanaBy Phillip Smith

Bernard Noble has already spent nearly four years in a Louisiana prison for being caught with two marijuana cigarettes — and he’s still less than a third of the way through a 13-year sentence with no shot at parole. The sentence is outrageous, but hardly unique in a state with one of the harshest marijuana laws in the country.

Under Louisiana law, possession of any amount of marijuana up to 60 pounds is punishable by six months in jail on a first offense, up to five years in prison for a second offense, and up to 20 years in prison for a third offense. While first- and second-time offenders are eligible for probation, third-time offenders are not. Distributing any amount of pot, even a joint or two, garners a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, and that includes possession with intent to distribute.

Add in the gross racial disparities in marijuana possession busts — African-Americans in the state are 3.1 times more likely to be arrested for than whites and account for nearly two-thirds of all pot arrests while making up less than one-third of the population — and you have a pipeline to prison for black Louisianans.

In Bernard Noble’s case, getting caught with a couple of joints morphed into more than 13 years behind bars because of the way the state’s harsh marijuana laws intersect with its harsh habitual offender law (known colloquially as “the bitch.”) Because Noble had two previous drug possession offenses, one 12 years old and one 24 years old, he fell under the purview of the habitual offender law.

Even though his current offense was trivial (marijuana is decriminalized in nearly 20 states and possession is legalized in four others and DC) and even though his previous offenses were low-level and nonviolent, the statute called for the 13 years, without parole.

Taking into account Noble’s minor criminal history, his work record, and his role as the breadwinner for a family with seven children, and making special note of his overpayment of child support to children not living with him, his sentencing judge departed from the statute and sentenced him to only five years. Orleans Parish prosecutors appealed the lower sentence to the state Supreme Court and got the 13-year sentence reinstated last year.

“Thirteen years in prison for two joints is obscene,” said Daniel Abrahamson, director of the Office of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance and a lead author of a brief to the state Supreme Court in the case. “The punishment is so far out of proportion to the conduct that we really can’t call it ‘punishment’ — it is more like torture.”

It has also shattered Noble’s family and destroyed his fledgling business, a restaurant in Kansas City. Noble had relocated there after Hurricane Katrina and has just returned to New Orleans for a family visit. He left his grandmother’s house on a bike ride four years ago and never made it back. He’s been locked up ever since.

But there’s renewed hope for the black, 48-year-old New Orleans family man, even if it’s a longshot. Lawyers working on his case are preparing to formally seek a commutation for him from Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) within the next few days, and they, supporters, and advocates are hoping to light a fire under the governor hot enough to make him act. A rally is set for Sunday to draw attention to his case.

If Jindal’s record is any indication, though, it will have to be quite a fire: During his time as governor, Jindal has granted only 40 of 390 commutations requested.

“This is one of the most egregious cases, a real heart breaker,” said Yolanda Cadore, director of strategic partnerships for the Drug Policy Alliance. “He’s been in there 44 months, and he’s not even close to finishing his sentence. He’s just passing time. The only rehab available is drug treatment.”

Noble’s sentence also plays into another ugly dynamic in Louisiana: imprisonment for profit. Back in the 1990s, during another overcrowding crisis, parish sheriffs were offered a cut of future profits if they covered the cost of building prisons in their counties. Now, more than half of state prisoners are held in parish jail administered by sheriffs.

The state pays them $24.39 a day per prisoner, much less than the $55 a day if would cost to house them in state prisons. If a sheriff can keep jails full, he can pull in as much as $200,000 per jail per year, all the while keeping expenses — staffing and inmate care and programs — as low as possible. Other sheriffs lease their prisons to for-profit prison companies in return for guaranteed annual payments.

Sheriffs have a direct financial incentive to keep their jails full, and they know it. Sentencing reforms would hurt their bottom line, and they have organized to make sure that doesn’t happen. The Louisiana Sheriffs Association consistently lobbies against sentencing reforms, and its political action committee uses its financial clout to help elect politicians who agree with them.

Orleans Parish, the most populous in the state, acts as a conveyor belt for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to fill the cells and the coffers for other parishes.

“Orleans Parish is the parish that is fueling the prison system in other parts of the state, and it’s mostly black men fed into the prison system from there,” said Cadore. “Look at Bernard Noble, look at Victor White, who was stopped, frisked, questioned, and ended up dead in the back of a police car after they found marijuana on him.”

Case after case after case of black men being sent away for years for relatively trivial offenses is starting to have a cumulative effect on public opinion.

“What’s rising to the surface is the impact these current laws have on a particular community — the black community,” Dore pointed out. “We are noticing that the drug war has a color, and that’s black, and it has a gender, and that’s mostly male, and it has a location, mainly urban, where the young black men are. In all of that, Louisiana is no outlier.”

Winning a commutation for Bernard Noble would be a step in the direction of social and racial justice. But he’s just one prisoner. The state has 40,000 more, many of them also nonviolent drug offenders.

“If we are ever going to make a dent in reducing the incarceration rate and having a serious conversation about policy reform, we have to look at the impact of these draconian, regressive policies that are fueling the incarceration problem in the state,” said Cadore.

“We also have to point out where lawmakers are making policy not based on evidence, but on tradition or notions of morality. We’re in an age where evidence-based policy-making is not only the right thing, but the fiscally and socially responsible thing to do,” she continued. “Louisiana has been casting a blind eye to evidence. Is it that they’re not paying attention or that they’re not paying attention to things that are profit-generating?”

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  • Jetdoc

    It’s this insatiable desire we’ve come accustomed to called “Private Prisons”. Where States make money from incarcerating their citizens. This is ONE step shy of SLAVERY!

    • Kathy Crawford

      No it is slavery

  • ĐΣFΣCŦΣĐ

    That is wrong! Basically evil how states can ruin a family and hurt children.

  • Jean Anne Lewis

    Welcome To The 21st Century’s Form Of Slavery. So damn sad. ;-(

    • Ron

      You might be more right than you think. Following the Civil War Sothern states developed a policy called the Convict Lease System and that’s exactly what it was: Convicts were leased out, mainly to plantations. It was simply a replacement of slavery and was quite lucrative to big land owners with lots of political pull. Just as the CLS was a thinly disguised continuation of slavery, the for-profit prisons of today are a thinly disguised continuation of the CLS and, hence, slavery.

      In case you are unaware, Louisiana is no doubt the most corrupt state in the country a thousand times over, so the despicable scheme should come as no surprise to anyone. Today there was an article elsewhere about the worst states to grow old. Louisiana was only the second worst, but maybe incarcerations for marijuana weren’t a consideration. BTW, the worst state to grow old should be obvious–the one that wins almost all standards of negativity–, but even that state has an enlightened marijuana punishment system compared to Louisiana.

      • Jean Anne Lewis

        I enjoyed reading your informative post. I hope you have a relaxing night. :-)

  • Ted Mishler

    yeah, corruption is alive in louisiana, too bad too, such a pretty state

  • Ted Mishler

    what do you know? they didnt shoot him in the face 33 times “sarcastically”

  • The people of Louisiana got the right wing government they voted for, and this is what right wing governments do.

    • Ted Mishler

      its what traitors of high treason to their constitution and to the usa do, how do you suppose this makes the iranians feel about us as a country allowing thugs to do this sort of thing, and then they turn around and CLIAiM they are for freedom, disgusting thugs

  • Silly Rabbit

    Wow …. Tough part of the story is after getting five years, way too much time, they went back and appealed to upper court and those guys gave him the 13 years …..

    Are these human beings doing this, unreal we treat our fellow man like this!

  • The truth

    This makes me ashamed of being from La…but when you elect a super majority of republicans this is what you get. I love La., but I despise the legislature and the chickenshit governor. La. Used to be a progressive state some what for the south, but now it’s been turned into the baptist church. Sadly I don’t see anything changing anytime soon. The Feds will be the only ones that can save us from our backwards ass state government, and hopefully that will happen in the next 2 years when the reschedule MJ.

    • Denny

      News flash; it wasn’t any different when you’ve had Democrats in charge down there.
      They promised to make “changes for the better” and as usual none of those promised came to fruition…typical politicians like all the others.

    • The Other LA

      Louisiana Democrats have become so cowardly risk averse, they embrace the politics of capitulation. When Jindal ran for governor in 2007 and 2011, the LA Democrats ran away. When Congressman Scalise was called out on his associations with former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, Congressman Cedric Richmond (D-LA) provided him cover and fawned over hm. If the Democrats want to win in Louisiana, they have to show up and take brave stands and stop acting like neocons. Now it’s almost taken for granted that Diaper David Vitter will be the next governor. Louisiana Democrats seem resigned to that fate. Former Senator Mary Landrieu is a neoconservative Democrat that opposed medical marijuana. Senator John Cassidy (R) to his credit supports it. The Louisiana Democratic Party is on the endangered species list and if Louisiana Democrats continue on his shameful trajectory, the party will become extinct in Louisiana and the Republicans (as much as I can’t stand them) are not to blame. Louisiana Democrats have become doormats by their own permission. Meanwhile Bernard Noble is a victim of a crime against humanity. For Noble’s sake, Louisiana needs it’s own Syriza or Podemos Party.

  • David

    The saddest truth in his story is that there’s a million more like it. The police, prosecutors, and judges that perpetuate this inhumane treatment, see this kind of injustice every day; they just don’t care. They destroy people’s lives, then laugh about what will happen to them in prison.

  • Kathy Crawford

    End Marijuana prohibition on a federal level the unjust laws do more harm the Marijuana itself
    no one should be in jail just for cannabis alone

  • Sinclair

    This is absolutely sickening, every person involved in this man’s incarceration should rot in hell. This is a tragedy and the logic of such a penalty is no better than the logic behind terrorism.

  • Stan

    This is Louisiana its always been criminals that run this state im white and I hear a lot about blacks when I am going thru the same thing lost my job 21 years,can’t find work,have 4 kids coach there sports,stay home and live the family life and now I’m looking at 15 years for second marijuana charge one in 1999 and one in 2013 lost job spent all my life savings,court,lawyers,fines,drug court,drug classes,drug tests,money money money over a harmless plant that half America its decrimalize are legal.I feel so sad I watch killers,child molesters,real criminals not getting time like this. Marijuana smokers are harmless happy people that laugh,get the munchies,have fun you never see some one smoke weed then get crazy,steal,hit there wife’s,are start trouble.Cops need to chase the hard drugs that are killing are people like pills,herion, crack,cocaine not a harmless plant.We need to stand together and vote these people out office and stand by the right people to help us . I love my kids more then any thing I always been there and did my job as a parent I’m so scared to leave them im a father they need me.