Lawmakers eye several marijuana sentencing reforms this week

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wwltv.com

Posted on April 21, 2014 at 10:43 PM

Updated Monday, Apr 21 at 10:43 PM

Monica Hernandez / Eyewitness News
Email: mhernandez@wwltv.com | Twitter: @mhernandezwwl

NEW ORLEANS – Corey Ladd’s family describes him as a hard worker with many friends.

But now, the 28-year-old is behind bars, serving a 20-year sentence for being caught with a small amount of marijuana.

“He broke a law, yes. But to get 20 years, that's ridiculous,” said Ladd’s mother, Lisa.

Lisa Ladd said her son was trying to get into a rehabilitation program when he was arrested for his third marijuana offense in 2011. He has a 2-year-old daughter who he has only seen while in prison.

“There are rapists, murderers, child molesters that actually get less time,” said Lisa Ladd.

Louisiana has some of the strictest sentencing laws in the country for repeat marijuana offenders.

A second conviction is a felony, and can carry up to five years in prison. Three or more offenses can carry up to 20 years.

But there's an effort in the legislature to change that. This week, lawmakers will consider three bills in House or Senate committees that would reform marijuana sentencing.

One of them, authored by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, would reduce the penalty for marijuana possession to no more than six months in jail or a fine of up to $100 for all offenses.

“Why does every state around us, including Texas, which is renowned as being more tough on crime than we are, why is it a misdemeanor in Texas? What's in the water here that requires us to lock up young men and women for decades for possession of marijuana?” Morrell said.

Morrell said his bill would save taxpayers $23 million a year.

But Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said his office considers each case individually, and more than 95 percent of repeat marijuana offenders his office sees don’t receive lengthy sentences. They are instead placed in diversion programs or given probation with the requirement to go through rehabilitation.

The current law is an important tool to help target violent offenders or drug dealers, said Cannizzaro.

“I don't have to tell anyone in the city of New Orleans, the very, very close relationship between illegal narcotics activity and crimes of violence,” Cannizzaro said.

“The problem is if you are a person of means or you have an attorney, you can be charged with marijuana 50 times and get charged with first possession every time,” said Morrell. “The fact that a DA or law enforcement can subjectively decide what kind of charge you're going to get at the onset is a problem.”

Judges can and should take a person's background into consideration in these cases, Cannizzaro said.

Cannizzaro believes Ladd was dealing drugs, although it has been nearly a decade since Ladd was convicted for doing so.

That conviction stems from a 2005 arrest in Jefferson Parish for possession with intent to distribute marijuana. His record also includes a gun charge and convictions for possession of drugs like LSD and cocaine.

Ladd’s latest arrest was for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, after he was implicated in a state police sting at a French Quarter bar. He pleaded guilty last month to a reduced charge of cocaine possession and was sentenced to two years, to run concurrently with his sentence for third offense marijuana.

“This is not this person's first time in the system, he's not sort of a babe in the criminal justice system. He's been in this system a number of times, he's been giving a number of opportunities in the criminal justice system to reform himself,” said Cannizzaro.

But Ladd's mother believes her son's past doesn't warrant two decades in jail.

“The scales of justice are so off-balance, it's just not right,” said Ladd.

The DA's office says Ladd refused a plea deal for his third marijuana offense that would have carried 10 years in prison.

District attorney’s can ask judges to consider past felonies in order to enhance sentences.

Morrell said it will be an uphill battle to reduce marijuana sentences because of push back from law enforcement.

 

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