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December 21, 2021

A deep dive into extreme sentences in the Pelican State

61bbccc672eb3.imageThe Marshall Project with the Times-Picayune and The Advocate has a new series of pieces exploring extreme sentences in Louisiana.  Here are headlines, links and a few passages:

"Her Baby Died After Hurricane Katrina. Was It a Crime?: An expansive definition of murder in Louisiana leaves many behind bars forever."

Louisiana sentences people to life without parole at one of the highest rates in the nation, data shows. Nearly 4,200 men and women are serving lifetime sentences in the state, for crimes that range from homicide and rape to rarer cases of repeat purse snatchings and child neglect, an investigation by The Marshall Project and The Times-Picayune | The Advocate found.

Second-degree murder charges, like the ones Woods and Scott were found guilty of, are a big driver of life-without-parole sentences. The state has long had the highest homicide rate in the nation. But Louisiana law contains an unusually sweeping definition of second-degree murder that includes even some accidental deaths, legal experts say. And despite the wide variations in circumstances that can produce a second-degree murder conviction — from a premeditated ambush to a getaway car accident — the sentence is the same: mandatory life without parole. Judges have almost no discretion.

"‘The Only Way We Get Out of There Is in a Pine Box’: Elderly, ailing and expensive, lifetime prisoners cost Louisiana taxpayers millions a year."

Total medical spending for state corrections eclipsed $100 million last year. That’s an increase of about 25% from 2015, according to state budget figures....

Now, one in six people incarcerated in Louisiana has been sentenced to die in state custody. Nearly 1,200 lifers are over 60. Those geriatric lifers make up nearly 5% of the state prison population.

"A life sentence for $20 of weed? Louisiana stands out for its unequal use of repeat offender laws."

The crime that landed Kevin O’Brien Allen a spot among the more than 4,100 Louisianans now serving life-without-parole sentences wasn’t a bloody one: He sold $20 in marijuana to a childhood friend....

Agents booked Allen on two counts of marijuana distribution, and prosecutors in District Attorney Schuyler Marvin’s office made him an offer: a 5-year sentence if he pleaded guilty. Allen, a father of two with a steady job but a handful of drug convictions, balked....

Louisiana law affords prosecutors wide discretion to increase a repeat offender’s sentence, up to life, and Marvin’s office drew on Allen’s past convictions: possession with intent to distribute marijuana in 2004, marijuana possession in 2007 and 2011, and methamphetamine possession in 2013.

Once invoked by a prosecutor, the habitual-offender law gives little leeway to judges. They can sentence a defendant to less time if they find the minimum is so far out of line that it defies “acceptable goals of punishment” or serves as “nothing more than the purposeful imposition of pain and suffering.” But courts have described those scenarios as “exceedingly rare.”...

Allen [received a life sentence and] now works in the prison kitchen, making juice for pennies a day, serving a sentence that ends when he dies. He’s among nearly 300 people serving life without parole in Louisiana prisons based on their status as habitual offenders, an analysis of recent state corrections data show. In 40% of those cases, the incarcerated person is locked up for life on a non-violent crime....

Corrections data show wide variances in how district attorneys around the state have used the habitual offender law. Nearly two-thirds of habitual lifers in the state were sentenced in one of four large parishes: Caddo, Orleans, St. Tammany or Jefferson, according to the data. The practice is somewhat less common in East Baton Rouge Parish, the state’s most populous.

Overall, Louisiana prosecutors have mostly aimed the law at Black defendants, like Allen. Black people make up 31% of Louisiana’s population, but 66% of its state prisoners; 73% of those serving life sentences; and 83% of those serving life as habitual offenders, corrections and census data show.

December 21, 2021 at 12:13 PM | Permalink


LWOP for selling pot is insane.

I'm unconvinced and frankly p'd off by the shallow attempt to make this a racial issue. A more relevant statistic (but impossible to measure) is what proportion of criminal offenders in LA are black. Because that one is impossible to measure, one could use a suitable proxy such as the percentage of homicide victims that are black. That should have far fewer measurement problems. If that percentage is out of line with the percentage of LWOP inmates who are black, that would be sufficient evidence of a racial issue that one would want to look deeper.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Dec 21, 2021 8:19:15 PM

I agree that LWOP for selling anything less than tonnage quantities of pot is insane. LWOP for proving time and again that you simply are not going to obey the law, after having been given one chance after the next after the next to do so, may be harsh but it is not insane. At some point and after so many episodes, the individual becomes responsible for his own fate.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 22, 2021 12:11:21 AM

Murder is the only crime where one can be sentenced to LWOP. And even then, aggravating circumstances should determine whether or not one is sentenced to LWOP. No one should serve a life sentence for any drug crime and it's obvious that poor black folks are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement and are sentenced more harshly by judges. Louisiana's economy is built on the prison industrial complex. Though it may change based on how much it's costing taxpayers.

Posted by: anon | Dec 22, 2021 6:30:22 PM


Sorry, but I still believe that any offense more serious than the theft of a couple hundred dollars should carry a presumptive death sentence and would not be bothered by such an outcome until discussing offenses comparable to thefts in the low tens of dollars. And while I am personally opposed to the war on drugs (and believe the federal form completely beyond Congress' enumerated constitutional powers) state political processes coming to different results is only of minor concern.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Dec 22, 2021 6:49:14 PM

Crucial item missing from the bar graphs: Race disparity of murder victims. Over the country as a whole, 54% of murder victims are black (and almost all black victims are killed by other blacks, just as most white murder victims are killed by other whites). Yet, while more than half of murder victims are black, blacks are only about one-eighth of the population. What this means is that, as essentially everyone in the field knows, blacks are much more likely both to kill and to be killed than are whites. And what that means, in turn, is that the disparities in sentencing are more readily explained by the behavior of the offender than by his race.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 23, 2021 10:50:22 AM

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