In response to Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman’s Guest Column “How We Can Achieve True Prison Reform, Reduce Criminal Relapses” — we applaud the district attorney’s agreement that we in Louisiana “incarcerate too many people.” That is the starting point to any conversation.
However, Mr. Bowman is wrong to argue the problem is not that we send too many African-American men to jail and prison but that these men keep returning to prison. It isn’t naïve or acting like a “dreamer,” for example, to rethink our multiple-offender law and how prosecutors throughout Louisiana use and overuse their discretion to seek extreme mandatory minimum sentences.
Our extreme multiple-offender law (otherwise known as the “three strikes” law) applies to any felony offense — including simple possession of small amounts of drugs. If you are a heroin addict and you are convicted of your third heroin possession charge, you will receive an automatic life in prison without the possibility of parole. This punishment does not fit the crime. This is not a wise use of our precious and scarce resources — resources otherwise spent on education, roads and levies.
We need look no further than our own Criminal District Court at Tulane and Broad to find the use of the multiple-offender law for drug offenses happening every day.
The multiple-offender statute is used every day. One client on his third drug possession charge was given a choice: plead guilty as a multiple offender and receive 10 years without parole or risk going to trial and receive a life sentence without parole if found guilty. Other clients found guilty of simple possession of drugs are sentenced to mandatory minimums of 13 and 20 years without the possibility of parole. And the judges can’t do anything about it. Because these huge sentences are mandatory, their hands are tied. The discretion rests solely with the prosecutors.
It is not only President Barack Obama calling for rethinking our mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenses. These calls are joined by Republican Sens. Charles Grassley and Rand Paul and former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich. Democrats and Republicans agree our tax dollars should not be spent overincarcerating people with nonviolent and drug convictions.
In the short term, there are things to do to end overincarceration and end the dubious honor of prison capital of the world. Specifically, it’s time prosecutors statewide stop using the multiple-offender law for nonviolent and drug offenses. In the long term, we need to rethink our sentencing laws and prosecutorial practices. We need to revise Louisiana’s multiple-offender law to better line up smart, cost-effective public policy with public safety and reduced incarceration rates. Doing so isn’t “dreaming,” but it just may help end the nightmare of over-incarceration.
deputy chief of trials, Orleans Public Defenders