As we reported back in March, Louisiana legislators are considering a bill that would have dropped marijuana possession from the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that help in the clogging of state prison systems.
House Bill 103 is gaining momentum, moving through committee this week and on to the House floor. The Advocate reports it was a pretty lively discussion, with several legislators pointing out the stupidity of sending people away for 20 years or more for a single joint to other, more pig-headed colleagues hell-bent on punishing pot users.
State Rep. Austin Badon, a democrat from New Orleans, introduced the bill - which drops penalties for second- third- and fourth-time offenders. Currently, a second pot offense is a felony that could get you $2,000 in fines and five years in jail. The proposal would drop that to a $500 fine and six months in jail (or both). Third convictions (and up) are a felony and currently get you up to $5,000 in fines and 20 years in prison. The bill would make it a $2,000 fine and up to two years in prison.
The bill also applies to synthetic marijuana, something many thought would have held up the bill in committee. Instead, the discussion turned into a larger debate about marijuana use and punishment in our society. At one point, the local ACLU director asked the panel of representatives how many of them know people who occasionally light up a joint (no doubt a lot, if they were being honest).
Louisiana State Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans.
"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.
It's a step in the right direction, but it certainly isn't going to eliminate useless prison sentences for marijuana convictions in the state. Currently even a first offense is a $500 fine and six months in jail for any amount.
Still, there's people against the move - including local District Attorneys who say that people convicted of offense in the past would clog the courts applying for a "reconsideration" from the judges - something the bill currently allows for. They also say that the lack of "harsh" penalties isn't going to be enough of a deterrent for repeat-offenders (because two years in jail for a plant isn't harsh or anything like that).
Badon says that the move is about keeping incarceration costs down for the taxpayers. "They're clogging up the jails right now and the taxpayers have to pay for it," Badon told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "We want to leave them in jail away from their families, away from their employment simply because it would cost more money and they'd have to hire more staff."