EBR coroner proposes tougher sentences for heroin dealers

Seeking to stem the recent surge of heroin overdoses in south Louisiana, the coroner of East Baton Rouge Parish is asking lawmakers to drastically increase prison sentences for people convicted of distributing the highly addictive drug.

Dr. Beau Clark has drafted a tentative proposal to raise the mandatory minimum sentence for dealing heroin to 30 years, a push he described as a compromise between the life sentences once in place and the five-year minimum on the books.

“We’ve got to do something,” Clark said this week after his office confirmed the 18th heroin-related death in the parish this year. That number — likely to increase with a handful of cases pending toxicology — represents a nearly fourfold increase from the five overdose deaths Clark’s office investigated in 2012.

Clark, who has become increasingly outspoken on public health matters, is among a growing chorus of local authorities who blame the resurgence of heroin on a 2001 law that jettisoned life sentences for heroin distributors.

“It was not worth it for a drug dealer to take the risk of selling heroin in this state,” said 19th Judicial District Court Judge Mike Erwin, who is championing a reinstatement of life sentences for heroin dealers. “I think we can make a strong argument for it. You’re not a nonviolent offender if you’re selling heroin.”

Lawmakers seemed divided on the topic in interviews this week. But Clark’s proposal was swiftly denounced by advocates for sentencing reform, who pointed to the state’s intractable incarceration rate and continued drug woes as proof that lengthy prison terms have been ineffective.

“If history has taught us anything, it is that the penalties we’ve imposed for drug dealing or possession have done absolutely nothing to stop the flow of drugs into our community,” said Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana. “Enhancing the penalty is not going to stop people from wanting heroin, and if people want something they’re going to find a way to get it.”

Greg Newburn, of the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums, likened Clark’s proposal to the “knee-jerk reaction” seen in Washington after the 1986 death of basketball star Len Bias. His death of a cocaine overdose came amid an epidemic of drug-related violence and prompted sweeping legislation that included lengthy prison sentences.

“This is completely out of step with the mainstream and overwhelming trend of sentencing laws around the country,” Newburn said. “States everywhere are reforming and repealing their mandatory minimum drug laws.”

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said his organization cooperated with Gov. Mike Foster’s administration in 2001 to eliminate life sentences for heroin distribution “because we judged that non-violent crimes did not need these mandatory minimums and Louisiana’s heroin problem was practically nonexistent.”

“Confidential informants validated that distributors wanted no part of any Louisiana heroin market because of the risk,” Adams said, adding it’s clear that is no longer the case. “Whether an increased mandatory minimum would now have a similar effect is the question.”

Law enforcement officials say the potency of today’s heroin has contributed to the overdoses. The return of the drug also comes as authorities have sought to crack down on the distribution of prescription pain pills.

“A big problem is that it is easier to get and cheaper than pills,” District Attorney Hillar Moore III said.

Authorities have been investigating recent heroin overdoses as homicides under a law that allows someone to be charged with murder for distributing an illegal drug proven to be the direct cause of death. One such defendant, Jarret McCasland, of Denham Springs, was booked with second-degree murder in August, accused of injecting his girlfriend with a fatal dose of heroin.

The increasing use of heroin across the country has prompted calls for new legislation in other states alarmed by a spike in overdoses.

But Newburn said Clark’s proposal stands out at a time of growing recognition “across the political spectrum” that mandatory minimum sentences have clogged prisons and drained budgets.

“It isn’t often that we see a strict mandatory minimum drug law proposed precisely because of the consensus — and the overwhelming evidence — that they don’t work,” Newburn said. “It’s becoming more difficult to pass these things.”

Clark said his suggestion of a 30-year minimum sentence, and a provision requiring that heroin dealers serve 15 years in prison before they become eligible for parole, isn’t set in stone and could easily change before a bill is filed. He said he hasn’t found a lawmaker yet to sponsor the legislation.

“I don’t think we should go back to a life sentence,” Clark added. “You can’t send these people to jail forever.”

State Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, said while he hasn’t seen the proposal, he would be amenable to increasing sentences for heroin dealers. “For distribution, I’m definitely in favor of the enhancement,” said Mack, a member of the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee.

But State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said it would be a step backwards and noted the burden that mandatory minimum sentences place on the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

“I don’t think we should be doing this,” Smith said.