Softer marijuana penalties advance out of committee

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Avoyelles Parish District Attorney Charles Riddle III, right, testifies Wednesday before the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee during debate on legislation that would reduce penalties for people charged with possessing small amounts of marijuana. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney's Association, sits to the left. The panel favorably reported the legislation to the full House.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Avoyelles Parish District Attorney Charles Riddle III, right, testifies Wednesday before the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee during debate on legislation that would reduce penalties for people charged with possessing small amounts of marijuana. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney's Association, sits to the left. The panel favorably reported the legislation to the full House.

A Louisiana House committee debated for more than an hour Wednesday before advancing legislation that would soften the penalties for marijuana possession.

The sticking point in House Bill 103 was how the proposal addresses habitual offenders and other already convicted offenders.

Current law requires a third or subsequent conviction of marijuana possession to be punished by up to 20 years in prison. The felony conviction can be used to enhance the prison sentence when the offender has at least two other felony convictions.

HB103 sponsor, state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, wants to allow those incarcerated for marijuana possession to be able to petition the court for a reconsideration of their sentences should his proposal become law.

He also wanted to stop prosecutors from using a marijuana possession charge to send offenders to prison for long sentences, including life, under the state’s habitual offender law.

The House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice agreed to cut the jail time for marijuana possession. A second conviction would be punishable by up to a year in prison instead of a maximum of five years. A third conviction would be punishable by up to two years instead of a maximum of 20 years. The maximum jail time for subsequent offenses would be five years. Those already incarcerated would be able to petition for a reconsideration of their sentences.

However, the committee tweaked the habitual offender language, mandating that all of the felonies would have to involve marijuana possession. With the change in place, the House committee voted without objection to advance the bill.

ACLU Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie Esman asked committee members to think about how many people they know who smoke marijuana.

“The difference between that person and the person who will be at Angola for the rest of their life is that they got caught,” she said.

Esman said Louisiana treats marijuana possession worse than a drive-by shooting.

One committee member, state Rep. Dalton Honoré, lauded the legislation.

“We’ve got to take a different approach. Our prisons are full,” said HonorĂ©, D-Baton Rouge.

Another committee member, state Rep. Chris Hazel, scolded Esman for making it sound like people are going to prison for simple possession charges. Hazel, R-Pineville, has a legal background that includes work as a prosecutor.

He said people who go to prison do so because they’ve committed multiple crimes.

“People have one or two or three bites at the apple,” Hazel said.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said habitual offenders are not in prison for life because they lit up a single marijuana joint.

“A joint is not a felony,” he said.

Habitual offenders in Louisiana can go to prison for an enhanced period of time following three felony convictions.

“We don’t send people to jail for life for three-time possession of marijuana. I defy you to show me one of those cases,” Adams said.

State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, said St. Tammany Parish prosecutors worked to sentence a Pearl River woman under the habitual offender law for writing bad checks.

“My concern is parishes where people are going to jail for those situations,” she said.

Avoyelles Parish District Attorney Charles Riddle said his main objection was the habitual offender and sentence reconsideration portions of the legislation.

He said the legislation would apply to people with extensive criminal records.

“If you take out the habitual offender and resentencing provisions, I’ll step down,” Riddle said.

Badon held his ground.

“So basically after you put the guy away, you don’t want to deal with him anymore,” he told Riddle.

Riddle countered that legislators should not take away the ability to prosecute the worst offenders as long as marijuana use remains illegal in Louisiana.

He said he does not put youngsters in jail for experimenting with marijuana.

“That’s in your parish,” HonorĂ© said. “They go to jail. They can’t get bonded out ... so they sit in there for six months.”