Is an 18 year sentence on a marijuana bust always "ridiculous?"

This is the question that the Louisiana state supreme court had to deal with recently. Is there justification for sentencing Gary D. Howard to 18 yeas in prison for possession of 18 marijuana cigarettes or is it a vast overreach by default? The court came down on the side of the state in upholding the sentence, but the court’s Chief Justice wrote what’s being described as a blistering dissent. (Associated Press)

In a withering dissent Wednesday, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson called it “outrageous” and “ridiculous” that the state’s highest court affirmed the lengthy prison sentence for such a small amount of marijuana — enough for at least 18 marijuana cigarettes.

Johnson questioned whether it was a mere coincidence — or an “arbitrary” decision — that Howard’s sentence amounted to one year per gram of marijuana that police found during a 2013 search of his girlfriend’s home in Shreveport.

“As a practical matter, in light of the inconsequential amount of marijuana found, imprisoning defendant for this extreme length of time at a cost of about $23,000 per year (costing our state over $400,000 in total) provides little societal value and only serves to further burden our financially strapped state and its tax payers,” she wrote.

If that was the entirety of the case I would no doubt be siding with the Chief Justice. If some kid was picked up after the cops found 18 joints on them (do people still call them “joints” these days?) and sentenced him to a nearly two decade stretch in the big house, I would find it beyond outrageous. Further, the fact that he was charged with intent to distribute – supposedly based on the fact that the joints were pre-rolled and ready to go – seems sketchy at best. Yes, I suppose it’s possible that some people are out there selling pot by the cigarette. After all, people stand on the corners in New York City and sell tobacco cigarettes as “singles.” But it’s equally plausible that Howard just liked to roll up his joints in advance and be done with it. People who roll their own tobacco cigarettes to save money do them in large batches.

Again, if that’s all we had to go on here it would seem that Mr. Howard needs a new trial. But it’s not. He was sentenced under a habitual offender law. Now if the previous convictions were all for similar small amounts of marijuana it would still sound fairly outrageous, but the one other conviction we know of for sure was possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in 2008. No mention is made of the original felony which landed him in prison last time, but that’s within the last decade and it’s not small potatoes.

At what point does a minor infraction become part of a larger, possibly life-long pattern of lawlessness, sometimes bordering on the violent and dangerous? If Gary Howard was in trouble with the law that many times and managed to acquire a bust for having a gun with a felony on his record, perhaps a long stretch away from the law abiding public is actually called for. It’s all in the context. Framing the public debate over a stiff sentence “for marijuana possession” makes a great headline, but it doesn’t really tell the entire story. Some of the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” laws go way too far as I’ll be the first to admit, but habitual offenders are a special class of criminal. They don’t automatically get the same benefit of the doubt and they really shouldn’t.