Legislators push for 99-year penalty for heroin dealers

After starting the session with talk of lowering penalties for dope, legislators appear poised to create a 99-year prison sentence for heroin pushers, spinning the state back to the days when peddling the often lethal drug meant life in prison.

Call it the Philip Seymour Hoffman influence. The late actor’s name arose several times during debate on heroin penalties at the State Capitol.

The Academy Award winner died of an overdose in February. Seventy bags of heroin were found in Hoffman’s New York apartment.

Heroin use is on the rise in celebrity enclaves, as well as the suburbs. Some legislators want to punish the dealer, while others want to treat the drug’s abuse as a disease.

What the House settled on Thursday is a 99-year maximum prison sentence for heroin dealers busted more than once.

A first offense could land peddlers in prison for 50 years, a penalty already called for in the law. Earlier this session, the state Senate backed putting dealers away for up to 99 years, regardless of whether it was their first offense.

Now the only issue is whether the Senate will keep the 50-year maximum sentence intact for first-time offenders.

The struggle over how to handle what is fast becoming a heroin epidemic in Louisiana divided the House on Thursday and sparked blistering debate that often got very loud.

Heroin isn’t just ensnaring celebrities such as Hoffman and Peaches Geldof. From 2012 to 2013, the number of heroin deaths increased from five to 34 in East Baton Rouge Parish. At least part of the escalation is attributed to a clampdown on prescription drug abuse.

Geldof, the daughter of a rock-and-roll star, died in April at age 25. A former wild child, she had two sons, gave parenting advice and often posted snapshots of a cozy, idyllic life. British authorities are trying to find out who sold her the heroin that likely ended her life.

State Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, characterized heroin as a nasty drug with an unlikely clientele. “The passage to heroin isn’t crack cocaine or marijuana. It’s prescription drugs,” he said.

Still, Landry voted against the 99-year maximum sentence called for in Senate Bill 87 Thursday. He said House Committee Chairman Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, broke a promise.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus oppose what would amount to a life sentence for heroin distribution. They accused Lopinto, R-Metairie, of breaking his word by backing the stiffer penalties in SB87 and abandoning his own less stringent proposal. The heated debate arose during Lopinto’s handling of SB87 on behalf of state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge.

At issue are two competing bills that are moving through the Legislature. SB87 would increase the maximum penalty for heroin distribution from 50 years in prison to 99 years in prison. Lopinto’s bill, House Bill 332, would take a softer approach by just dealing with the minimum sentence. Getting popped with heroin would mean jail time, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the equivalent of a life sentence.

SB87 was up for debate Thursday in the House. Lopinto ruffled feathers by suggesting his bill will become a mirror of SB87, resulting in the Legislature changing state law to create a 99-year maximum prison sentence for heroin dealers. Black legislators said that wasn’t the deal Lopinto made with them.

State Rep. Sherman Q. Mack, R-Albany, offered a compromise by making the 99-year sentence apply only upon a second or subsequent conviction. Some House members remained angry.

Legislator after legislator stood up to accuse Lopinto of reneging on an agreement that had, in one Democrat’s words, everyone singing “Kumbaya.” Lopinto said he wasn’t going to weep for drug dealers.

“If you want to be against (Claitor’s) bill, be against his bill,” an exasperated Lopinto finally told state Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport. Norton’s voice kept accelerating louder and louder as she scolded Lopinto.

Ultimately, the House voted 54-33 in favor of SB87.

Legislators came into session vowing to do something about escalating heroin use in Louisiana. Heroin distribution used to be punishable by a life prison sentence in Louisiana. The sentence later was softened to a maximum of 50 years behind bars. The prevailing consensus — with roughly two weeks left in the session — is that Louisiana will return to what could amount to a life prison sentence, depending on how harsh judges want to be in the face of a spiraling epidemic.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said the proposal would take Louisiana back to the days of locking up heroin dealers for life.

“We did our darnedest to try to change that. It just bothers me that now just because of what they feel is a rise in heroin that we have to go to such stringent rules. That’s my major concern, and I’m not going to be able to support that,” she said.

State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, said murders and rapists could get less time in prison than heroin pushers under the terms of the legislation.

“You can kill someone in the state of Louisiana and be better off than dealing heroin? I have a serious problem with this bill,” James said.

State Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said drug abuse is an illness.

“We’re not dealing with possession. I’m not concerned with a drug distributor having an illness,” Lopinto, a former police officer, retorted.

Finally, Mack offered his compromise.

“The bill’s going to increase (penalties for) selling heroin to our kids, no matter what we do,” Mack warned members of the Legislative Black Caucus. The amendment passed.

However, Democrats still had problems with the bill and with Lopinto.

Jackson snatched her microphone after Lopinto returned to the podium on the House floor. “I’m more concerned about us keeping our word to each other,” she told him.

Lopinto said things happen and the point is to decrease heroin abuse. “We did a pretty good thing today,” he said.

Later in the day, Lopinto walked across the chamber to Jackson’s desk and leaned in to talk to her. Jackson remained seated, leaving Lopinto to hover over her.

Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/