Editorial: Call It What You Want

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David Borden
One group of Louisianans who had mostly been forgotten since long before the hurricane hit are a group of prisoners, mostly low-level offenders, convicted of selling heroin or of possession with intent to sell. The "Heroin Lifers," as they are known to the small number of people paying attention, were sentenced under a draconian law passed in 1973 that mandates a life-without-parole sentence for any such offense. Neither the quantity of heroin involved nor any details of the actual circumstances are allowed to be considered under this particularly harsh mandatory minimum statute.

Our editor stumbled across the Lifers last week while talking to experts about the post-Katrina New Orleans jail scandal, and is currently researching the issue. We don't yet know how many of them there are, though author Sasha Abramsky wrote in Legal Times 2 ½ years ago that the legislature was considering granting parole to Heroin Lifers who had served at least 40 years of their sentences and there were about 250 such people. If sources can be reached this week we'll have a full story in the Chronicle next issue.

It's good -- a little -- that Louisiana's powers-that-be were willing to help out those 250 people. Even if the motivation was the money they could save by not having to provide prison-based geriatric care for no reason (I speculate, perhaps there were other reasons too), it's better -- slightly -- than nothing.

But what about the merely 30-year prisoners? Or the 20-years? Five?

The idea of a lifetime behind bars, with no possibility of redemption, has an air of unreality to it -- most of us cannot really conceive of what such a life would be like, or what it would be like to have the knowledge that that was to be one's life. Sentencing like that for any but the worst of the worst of all criminals must be the work of people who have lost perspective on what incarceration truly means. Imagine that you are to spend a single year in jail. Doesn't it seem like a long time? Just one year of incarceration is intrinsically a pretty harsh punishment, if the measure of harshness is the actual effect a punishment has on the individual punished. Even if one stop short of advocating outright legalization of drugs (I advocate legalization, for many reasons), the Louisiana law, and many similar ones passed by other states and by Congress, still defy reason.

So what should we call such the act of dealing a lengthy, mandatory minimum prison term to a minor drug offender, let alone a life-without-parole term? Should we call it injustice? Cruelty? Tyranny? Violative of human rights? Evil? Take your pick of those or other descriptors -- at a minimum let us all agree it is senseless and must cease as soon as possible.

Each day that passes is another day the Heroin Lifers languish behind bars, denied the most essential, natural right to which they are entitled: the right to freedom.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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While incarcerated myself...

for some lame drug charges, I was the law librarian for awhile at a detention center in southern Louisiana. I remember reading through some case law and seeing an appeal from one of these guys. His attorney brought-up all commonsense arguments of cruelty, sentence doesn't fit the crime, etc. It was nothing short of disgusting to see the appeal denied. And, he was only arrested for a $20 (or $25?) transaction. Pure insanity. :-/

In 2001 (or 2002?) that sentencing guideline was change to 5 - 50 years without the benefit of parole. People sentenced since then are afforded "good time" though. So, they get out on "As if on Parole" after serving half of their sentence.

- LoLo
http://www.burntpickle.com/bp/lolo/

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