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Louisiana Chief Justice Argues Against “Ridiculous” 18-Year Sentence for Marijuana Possession

"Louisiana law authorizes these Draconian sentences that would embarrass its other Southern neighbors"

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In 2014, Gary D. Howard was convicted by a jury of marijuana possession with intent to distribute, and sentenced to 18 years in prison with no possibility of parole. Howard appealed to the state Supreme Court over the severity of the sentence, but the court ruled to uphold the lower court's decision. The court's ruling was not unanimous, however, and Chief Justice Bernette Johnson called her fellow justices' decision "outrageous" and "ridiculous" in her dissent.

Police found 18 grams of pot in Howard's girlfriend's house, which was packaged into five separate bags. Prosecutors used this fact as evidence that Howard intended to distribute the pot, although a prosecution expert conceded that he may have purchased the weed packaged that way, for personal use.

"Legally, the state proved nothing more than simple possession of marijuana in this case," Johnson wrote in her dissent.

Johnson questioned whether the original judge's decision to sentence Howard one year for every gram of pot was a coincidence or an “arbitrary” decision. "As a practical matter, in light of the inconsequential amount of marijuana found, imprisoning 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," she wrote.

Louisiana currently has the highest incarceration rate in the country, and has recently drawn criticism over that very fact. State lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would overhaul the current system of criminal sentencing. "Louisiana law authorizes these Draconian sentences that would embarrass its other Southern neighbors," said Rob Smith, director of Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project.