Louisiana is nowhere close to legalizing marijuana use, so those who dream of Colorado high times on the bayou will have to wait, we suspect, for a good, long while.
Yet the Legislature is taking sensible steps to deal with the increasing problem of marijuana possession cases clogging courts and prisons, at a high cost to the taxpayer.
A bill by Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, aims to reduce penalties associated with possession of small amounts of marijuana. Because of a broad concern about costs associated with current penalties, particularly multiple offenses that can lead to long prison terms, possession has become a challenge to the justice system.
Neither sheriffs nor district attorneys opposed the bill this year, although they had previously voiced concerns.
Morrell’s bill provides more breaks for those caught with small quantities of pot. Someone caught with less than 14 grams of marijuana would face up to 15 days in jail and up to six months if caught with less than 2.5 pounds but more than 14 grams. A second-offense conviction would drop from a felony to a misdemeanor with a sentence of no more than six months. Currently, an offender would face up to eight years in prison.
If someone gets caught on a second offense — and it’s been more than two years since the first conviction — the violation would be treated as a first offense.
On a third offense, a felony charge would kick in, carrying a reduced penalty — up to two years in prison — from the current law’s up to 20 years. The maximum prison time on subsequent offenses would drop from 20 years to eight years.
One of those pushing for reforms is state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans. “It’s a balance between dealing with serious offenders and saving the state much-needed revenue,” Badon said. “We are putting people away for nonviolent, nonsex offenses, pulling them away from their families, education, jobs.”
A sentence reduction does not solve the state’s budget problem, but state government cannot afford to continue to eclipse U.S. states —and some repressive foreign countries — in high incarceration rates. Even a few million a year in savings is valuable, but we expect that over the next few years, the state must invest more in probation and parole. Make those post-prison processes more effective, and we should see fewer prisoners returning to the jailhouse.
Morrrell’s bill has attracted support from right and left; the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Pelican Institute for Public Policy have been among the leaders in talking about practical solutions to prison costs.
This is not the only “right on crime” policy that can be adopted, but in a short fiscal session dominated by budget matters, Morrell’s bill is an accomplishment.
We urge Gov. Bobby Jindal to consult on the Morrell bill with the Pelican Institute and other conservatives who have made corrections reform a national cause on the right. This field is not only cultivated by the left anymore.