Edward Pratt: Stiff sentences won’t win drug war

In Louisiana, you can criticize our lagging public education system and our underfunded higher education system but, mister, you can’t say anything about the way we load up prisons.

We will march your keister off to the slammer, depending on how you look at it, with the best of them. Wait, we are the best of them. Louisiana sends more folks to prison per capita — 893 people for every 100,000 residents — than anywhere else in the nation. We are the LeBron James of sending folks to prison.

And, now we may be getting ready to put even more people in stripes — and for a long time. Our Legislature has passed a bill that says that if you are caught twice peddling heroin, you risk going to jail for 99 years. The mandatory minimum for heroin distribution would jump from five to 10 years.

By all accounts, if we started marching those folks off to jail, it would make us the Michael Jordan of sending folks to prisons.

(My question, though, with heroin is: How much is personal use and how much is peddling?)

But jacking up the sentence on a particular drug smacks of those days of the so-called war on drugs, which was fought mainly in the poor and minority communities.

Remember when getting tough meant punishing folk who used crack, the cheaper form of cocaine? Crack dealers got harsher sentences, while those who used the more expensive, private-club powder cocaine — people who were more likely to be white — got lesser sentences, if they went to jail at all.

Now you have the Louisiana Legislature getting tough on heroin pushers. In the past 18 months, there have been some high-profile cases of celebrities and their kin succumbing to heroin-related overdoses.

But they are not the norm, according to statistics from the United States Sentencing Commission. Its figures show that the largest demographic group among those arrested on heroin charges are Hispanics at 47 percent, black people at 36.3 percent, white people at 15.7 percent and other races at 1 percent.

Truth be told, everyone wants to be rid of illicit drugs — heroin use is edging up — but are crazy-long sentences the way to go? You can get life for killing folks, and somehow, murder hasn’t stopped.

So, now Louisiana can become a state where you could do 99 years for pushing heroin but be sentenced to only 35 years for driving drunk for at least the fourth time and killing seven people in a car accident.

That’s the situation in Slaughter, where a drunk driver killed seven people in a 2012 car accident. The original sentence was 70 years, but a judge reduced that to 35 years. The killer will have to serve 29 years and nine months of that sentence to become eligible for parole.

But wait: The killer’s lawyer is saying even that is too much time, and he will be arguing that the 35 years be reduced. I guess with all of the victims being killed in one accident, the liquored-up driver’s attorney expects a 7-for-1 bargain sentence. Stay tuned on this one.

So, if heroin is such a big concern, what about those folks blowing up houses, apartments and trailers while cooking up crystal meth?

You’ve seen stories about folks whacked out and needing meth, beating the stew out of people for money and whatever else they had of value.

In fact, says the Sentencing Commission, the number of meth cases has gone up 35 percent since 2009. What about the possibility of 99-year sentences for being caught cooking that brew for a second time?

Don’t count on it.

Heroin is a dangerous drug. But, do we really want a rerun of the 1980s and 1990s? Draconian sentencing and housing prisoners should not be Louisiana’s claim to fame.

Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is epratt1972@yahoo.com.