Baton Rouge, LA — Derek Harris is an honorably discharged veteran who put his life on the line for his country in Operation Desert Storm. His years of service to his country were but dust in the wind, however, to the state who threw him in a cage for the rest of his life for selling less than a gram of weed to an undercover cop.
The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads as follows: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. Here at the Free Thought Project we feel that life in prison without the possibility of parole for selling .69 grams of a plant is not only excessive but extremely cruel. Sadly, however, it is not unusual.
This week, Harris’ case is up for review by the Louisiana State Supreme Court and several of the justices are saying enough is enough. Thanks to a corrupt and defunct system that prosecutes non-violent drug offenders worse than child molesters, however, Harris is facing several major hurdles.
Due to a precedent set by a previous state court, convicts cannot challenge their sentences after they’ve already gone through the appeal process. That means Harris has very few options at his disposal.
Harris’ nightmare began back in 2008 when an undercover cop knocked on his door and asked to buy some weed. Harris had just .69 grams — barely enough to roll two joints — and sold it for $30. He was then raided by police, kidnapped and thrown in a cage. In 2012, 15th Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque found Harris guilty of marijuana distribution, a Vermilion Parish prosecutor invoked the state’s habitual-offender law, and Conque sentenced Harris to life as a four-time loser.
Harris has struggled with mental illness since he came back from Iraq. This led him down a path of addiction and to maintain that addiction, Harris sold drugs and stole small items. However, Harris never hurt anyone and all of his crimes were misdemeanors.
As NOLA.com reports:
Harris’ prior convictions dated back to a 1991 conviction for dealing cocaine, according to court filings. He was subsequently convicted of simple robbery in 1992 and 1993, simple burglary in 1997 and theft under $500 in 2005, said Cormac Boyle, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative who argued Harris’ case Monday.
Boyle said ample evidence suggests a struggle with mental illness linked to his military service, not a penchant for criminality behind his rap sheet. But that mitigating evidence never came up as Conque dealt Harris a life sentence with no shot at parole under a habitual-offender law that gives prosecutors broad discretion.
“Courts have a duty to make sure the punishment fits the crime. That didn’t happen here,” Boyle argued Monday. “This court has always retained the right to say a sentence is excessive.”
Prosecutors don’t see it that way, however. They claim that if Harris’ sentence is overturned, it will let hardened criminals back out on to the streets. But this is simply not true. This habitual offender statute is the reason Louisiana has become the incarceration capital of the entire planet.
“These extremely long and excessive sentences, you’re not really able to challenge them once you receive them and so we have a disproportionate number of people serving life without parole and a disproportionate number of people in prison,” says Mercedes Montagnes, Executive Director at the Promise of Justice Initiative.
“Mandatory life for the smallest amount of marijuana. Does it violate the 8th Amendment? Is it excessive? That’s what we’re talking about,” Chief Justice Bernette Johnson said.
It’s not just life sentences for pot that are excessive. Any time anyone is deprived of their freedom or extorted by government for possessing or partaking in this plant, it is cruel and excessive, yet sadly it remains a function of this entire system.
Despite an increasing number of states legalizing marijuana, arrests for the beneficial plant continue to increase. As Forbes reports:
According to new data released by the FBI in October, there were 663,367 marijuana arrests in the country in 2018.
That’s one every 48 seconds, and represents an uptick from the 659,700 cannabis busts American police made in 2017, and from 2016’s total of 653,249.
The jump comes despite the fact that there are now 11 states where marijuana is legal for adults over 21.
“Americans should be outraged that police departments across the country continue to waste tax dollars and limited law enforcement resources on arresting otherwise law-abiding citizens for simple marijuana possession,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said. We agree.
Please share this story so we can try to remedy this situation in which a man who offered up his life to the country does not spend the rest of that life in a cage because of that country’s addiction to arresting people for a plant.