A national advocacy group in favor of drug law reform asked the Louisiana Supreme Court on Wednesday to review the 13-year prison sentence of a man convicted of possessing the equivalent of two marijuana cigarettes.
The Drug Policy Alliance filed an amicus brief with the court on behalf of 48-year-old Bernard Noble. According to the group’s own press release, Noble was originally sentenced to five years of hard labor for the minor drug charge, but the Orleans Parish District Attorney appealed the sentence.
Noble’s case eventually wound up before the Louisiana Supreme Court. He was sentenced, last year, to 13 years for possession of 2.8 grams of marijuana.
“Thirteen years in prison for two joints is obscene,” said Daniel Abrahamson, the lead author of the brief for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The punishment is so far out of proportion to the conduct that we really can’t call it ‘punishment’ — it is more like torture.”
Noble had never been convicted of a violent crime. His only only prior convictions were from two similar cases for possession of drugs for personal use. One conviction was 20 years ago.
A story from Al-Jazeera earlier this year indicates that Louisiana is home to some of the nation’s toughest drug laws. A first arrest in the state for minor drug possession can carry a six-month jail sentence. A third arrest can carry a 20-year sentence or possibly life in prison.
Derwyn Bunton, the chief public defender in New Orleans, said Noble’s case was just another example of an unequal criminal justice system.
“We in the South are part of the Bible belt, [a] very Christian part of the country, that has produced some very conservative values that play themselves out in our criminal justice system,” he told Al-Jazeera. “There is also the history of slavery and racism in the south. It becomes easy to sort of make a political name prosecuting very vigorously drug offenses.”
But those prosecutions come at a high cost for the state, and Abrahamson questioned whether it is worth it. He pointed out that a high percentage of the state’s prisoners have not committed a violent crime.
“Finally, Mr. Noble’s prison sentence for possessing two joints will cost Louisiana taxpayers nearly one-quarter of a million dollars and will add to the majority of nonviolent offenders who currently fill Louisiana’s prisons,” Abrahamson said. “In fact, only 17 percent of the state’s prison inmates have committed violent crimes, whereas fully one quarter of the state’s prison population is there for drug crimes.”
Noble’s current sentence carries no chance for parole.