Advisory panel shoots down proposal to reduce marijuana sentences

The governor’s advisory board on criminal sentencing issues voted Thursday to sideline a recommendation that the Louisiana Legislature lower the penalties for the simple possession of marijuana.

After a heated debate, the Louisiana Sentencing Commission voted 9-5 against recommending to Gov. Bobby Jindal that state law be revised to make first, second and third offenses misdemeanor crimes, usually punishable with a fine.

Under current law, a second offense conviction includes a sentence of a fine of up to $2,000 and a prison term of up to five years hard labor.

“We’re not talking about expanding this beyond simple possession,” said Hilary Landry, a New Orleans lawyer who studied the issue at the commission’s request and presented the proposal. She said the proposed reduction would not apply to defendants arrested with amount marijuana that could constitute distribution. It not decriminalize marijuana, she said.

But lessening the penalties for the relatively minor possession crimes would lower the costs for prosecuting and incarcerating defendants as well as the amount of time courts and law enforcement spent on these cases. Additionally, recent polls found that a broad cross section of Louisiana voters supported moves to make less harsh the sentences for simple possession of marijuana, she said.

The trend among other states is to back away from harsher penalties, Landry said.

Ricky Babin, who chairs the commission, questioned the number of people in prison on solely marijuana possession convictions. Babin also is district attorney for the 23rd Judicial District, which includes Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes. He said further study is needed to determine if the thousand of so offenders in prison now have been convicted of other crimes in their past.

“I will oppose any reduction,” said state Sen Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe and chair of the Senate committee that would hear such a bill, if filed.

“This is nothing more than the first step to legalizing marijuana,” Kostelka said.

Landry said the proposal was very restrictive and was not intended to lead to legalization.

The Louisiana Sentencing Commission only makes recommendations. Jindal would have to agree to the policy and to including the measure in his legislative package. The Legislature convenes in March.

The commission is a panel of lawyers, judges, prosecutors, scholars and law enforcement.