This headline is clickbait.
To be clear, Derrick Harris is Black. He is also a combat veteran who served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm. And, although the Constitution outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude, the 13th Amendment made a special exception for people who commit a “crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” There are hundreds of thousands of incarcerated citizens who are legally enslaved in places like the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, which also serves as a literal slave plantation. Every able-bodied (and often non-able-bodied) man incarcerated at the forced labor camp known as “Angola” spends some time in the fields while mostly white corrections officers (called “freemen”) patrol the inmates on horseback.
For nine years, Derrick Harris was one of those enslaved men.
In 2008, Harris was arrested for selling less than one gram of marijuana for $30 to an undercover police officer in Abbeville, La., four months after the alleged incident occurred. At that time, Louisiana’s “Jim Crow juries” could convict a person without a unanimous verdict, so Harris chose not to have a jury trial and instead, let a judge decide his fate, the Appeal reports. The district attorney’s office delayed the trial for three years and eventually bumped up the charges to distribution of marijuana.
On June 26, 2012, Harris was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Unsatisfied, the district attorney filed a brief saying that Harris should have been sentenced as a habitual offender, based on his prior convictions. Harris noted that his previous offenses did not involve violence, but under Louisiana’s habitual offender law, it did not matter. Not only does the state have the highest incarceration rate in the country and the second-highest percentage of Black prisoners, but one out of every three prisoners in its prison system are serving a life sentence, which is also the highest percentage in America, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. On Nov. 15, 2012, Harris received a new sentence from Judge Durwood Conque.
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Life without the possibility of parole.
Harris appealed his conviction but a year later, an appeals court found that his sentence wasn’t excessively harsh despite informing the court that he suffered from a drug addiction after his time serving the country in combat. One of the judges wrote that the sentence was “bereft of fundamental fairness.”
“I believe it is unconscionable to impose a life-sentence-without-benefit upon this Defendant who served his country on the field of battle and returned home to find his country offered him no help for his drug addiction problem.” Judge Sylvia R. Cooks wrote in her dissenting opinion. “It is an incomprehensible, needless, tragic waste of a human life for the sake of slavish adherence to the technicalities of law.”
Cooks just happened to be the Third Court of Appeals’ only Black judge.
But on August 6, advocates from the Promise of Justice Initiative, a legal advocacy organization, helped Harris secure his freedom when a judge reduced his sentence to time served, KTLA reports.
In 1863, the price for an enslaved African was $2,500. Using data from the Vera Institute, we figured it cost the state of Louisiana about $146,259 to incarcerate Harris for nine years. But if inmates worked 40 hours per day for nine years making $8.30 per hour (the average farm-hand wage in Louisiana), then the state makes a profit of $1,000 per prisoner every year.
But the headline is still not true.
Harris didn’t receive a life sentence for selling $30 worth of weed. He received a life sentence for selling .69 grams of marijuana. According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, that’s less than $5 worth of weed. In Colorado, where medical marijuana is legal, Harris sold $7.24 worth of cannabis. After doing my own extensive research on this obscure subject, Harris spent nine years in prison for selling enough reefer to roll a half a blunt.
Harris was not exonerated. The court did not even say his sentence was too harsh. He was released because the court effectively concluded that nine years was about the right amount of time for someone to be enslaved for “distributing” microscopic doses of marijuana.
Apparently, in Louisiana, a Black life is worth less than $8.
Sorry about the clickbait.