Legislature OKs 99-year sentence for heroin dealers _lowres

Advocate Photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, answers questions Tuesday from state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, on legislation that would extend prison sentences for distributing heroin.

On a vote of 27-11, the state Senate gave final passage Tuesday to legislation that could put repeat heroin dealers in prison for nearly a century.

Legislators chose this year to get tough on drugs, despite talk of looking more favorably on marijuana use. Bills to lower the penalties for marijuana possession and to give sick people access to medical marijuana quickly stalled. Instead, legislators focused on heroin, which is drawing in celebrities as well as everyday pill poppers.

The Legislature is choosing to pursue the dealers rather than the users. However, anyone caught with heroin could find themselves forced to argue that the stash was for personal use.

In a retro move, Senate Bill 87 would create a 99-year sentence for heroin distribution. The current maximum sentence is 50 years. It once was a life sentence.

First-time dealers still would face up to 50 years in prison. Repeat offenders could go to prison for 99 years. The minimum sentence on distribution would increase from five years to 10 years.

SB87 now goes to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk as the Legislature’s solution for the problem of escalating heroin use in Louisiana.

“I hope it discourages folks from engaging in the distribution of heroin. ... This is probably a good thing,” said the measure’s sponsor, state Sen. Dan Claitor.

Like the Louisiana House, the Senate wrestled with the bill. The issue in the House was creating what could amount to a life sentence for heroin distribution. In the Senate, Democrats objected to the doubling of the minimum, mandatory sentence for heroin dealers.

The Legislature spurned entirely an effort to put heroin users in jail for at least two years. Now the focus is just on the dealers.

State Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, suggested the state’s prison costs will increase as heroin dealers are locked up for longer sentences. She asked Claitor how much the doubling of the minimum, mandatory sentence would cost the state.

“I hope it discourages folks from engaging in the distribution of heroin,” Claitor said.

State Sen. Rick Gallot, who is a criminal defense attorney, said Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, assured him that he wouldn’t touch the minimum sentence for heroin distribution. Gallot, D-Ruston, asked the Senate to reject the House amendments and kick the bill to a conference committee. In a conference committee, several legislators work out a compromise on amended legislation.

“Where I come from, a man’s word is his bond. ... Help me hold him accountable,” Gallot said, referring to Claitor.

The Senate rejected Gallot’s motion, with 16 voting for it and 21 voting against it.

After the amendment failed, Claitor defended himself. He said legislators have to reach a consensus on their proposals.

“In this process, my word doesn’t carry the entire day. There’s a whole chamber over there that has something to say about these bills. It’s not as easy as my way or that’s the entire way,” he said.

Heroin is cheaper than black market prescription drugs. It’s also often more pure than what was sold years ago and therefore more lethal.

“Glee” star Cory Monteith abused alcohol and heroin before he died last year in a Vancouver hotel room. Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died in February surrounded by bags of heroin. A needle was in his arm. Two months later, model Peaches Geldof died after taking heroin. The same drug killed Geldof’s mother, rock journalist Paula Yates, in 2000.

States are tackling the resurgence of heroin through legislation.

Like Louisiana, New York wants to make Naloxone, which counteracts heroin, more available. Kentucky pursued similar legislation while also looking at increasing the penalties against heroin dealers.

Claitor initially just wanted to lock up heroin pushers for up to 99 years. The Louisiana House debated his bill for nearly two hours and doubled the minimum, mandatory sentence for dealers.

“I agree with these amendments. They spoke, apparently, for an hour and a half over there and hammered this out,” Claitor said Tuesday, adding “This is a compromise.”

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