Sentencing commission backs lesser pot penalties

In a sharp turnaround, a commission that advises the governor on criminal sentencing issues backed legislation Thursday to reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.

In November, the Louisiana Sentencing Commission turned down the idea of reducing sentences for people convicted of possessing marijuana. But after occasionally rancorous debate Thursday, the commission voted favorably on a measure that would do just that.

Ricky L. Babin, who chairs the Sentencing Commission, shook his head. “I never thought I’d see the day,” he said.

“This is a policy recommendation to the governor,” said Babin, who added he personally opposes the commission’s stance. “It doesn’t mean every individual here agrees with every resolution.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal responded late Thursday to the Sentencing Commission’s actions in a prepared statement: “We have not reviewed the specifics of these bills, but in general we are in favor of passing common-sense sentencing reforms that, when appropriate, lessen sentences for nonviolent drug use offenders while focusing on rehabilitation for offenders.”

The Sentencing Commission is made up of 22 members — 13 of whom are appointed by the governor — from the legal profession and the judiciary. Their task is to analyze criminal justice issues and make recommendations.

The debate over marijuana came as the commission considered recommendations on a number of bills being considered during the Louisiana legislative session that begins March 10.

The commission voted favorably on House Bill 14, filed by state Rep. Austin Badon Jr., D-New Orleans.

Under today’s law, an offender convicted the third time for possession of marijuana faces a sentence of up 20 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Badon’s legislation would reduce third-offense penalties to a maximum of five years in prison and a $2,000 fine. Those convicted a second time for possessing marijuana, under HB14, would face a maximum two-year term and a fine of no more than $500, which is down from the law’s five-year sentence and $2,000 fine.

It would create a fourth- and subsequent-offense possession charge that carries a sentence of no more than eight years in prison and a $2,000 fine.

Gregory M. Thompson, a New Orleans lawyer who was tasked with analyzing the legislation for the commission, said he was surprised at the debate. His job was to review the bill and evaluate its impact.

“This was the administration saying ‘Take a look at this bill and tell us what you think.’ My aim was not to take a position one way or the other,” Thompson said. “But whenever you mention marijuana, well, that seems to inflame passions.”

Thompson pointed out that for all the debate over whether the commission supported or opposed leniency for marijuana convictions, what they actually voted on was a statement that “HB14 achieves a small degree of balance” with the laws that other state legislatures are passing in the South “and somewhat comports with the desires of the majority of Louisiana citizens who favor significant reductions in these penalties.”

Kentucky reduced all simple possession of marijuana convictions to sentences of no more than 45 days, Thompson said his research showed. Mississippi charges a fine for the first offense and limits the jail term to six months for a conviction on a third offense.

State Sen. Robert Kostelka, a member of the commission and chairman of the state Senate committee most likely to consider the legislation, argued against the commission’s stance. He said marijuana is dangerous and a precursor to harder drugs.

He also argued that lessening the sentences would hinder the ability to prosecute criminals.

Kostelka vowed to oppose the measures in the Legislature.

The commission also voted against reporting legislation, as written, drafted by state Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge. It then came back and expressed support after he verbally said he would make the changes.

His House Bill 130 would reduce the ability of prosecutors to use earlier marijuana offenses to enhance penalties.

Honoré said he knew of instances in which prosecutors searched a defendant’s past and came up with a decades-old marijuana conviction so they could use it to seek enhanced sentences for crime they are prosecuting today.

Seven members of the commission voiced concern because HB130 would apply to both possession and distribution of marijuana. That led to the commission voting 3-7 against reporting Honoré’s bill favorably.

After he said he would remove the language and allow prosecutors to seek enhanced penalties for offenders previously convicted of distribution, the commission voted 8-3 as an expression of support should the changes be made.