In Louisiana, a Black veteran currently serving life without parole over a $30 weed sale is set to be released.
On Thursday, prosecutors in Vermilion Parish, La., agreed to release Derek Harris, who has served nine years in prison, KATC reports. Harris was arrested in 2008 for selling less than a gram of marijuana to an undercover agent. At his sentencing hearing in 2012, a judge suggested that Harris be sentenced to 15-years as opposed to the maximum 30. Prosecutors then argued the habitual offender law should be utilized, citing his previous convictions for nonviolent theft and drug related incidents. As a result, the judge said he had no other option but to give Harris the maximum possible sentence.
Last month, Harris was granted a new trial by the Louisiana Supreme Court, where his legal team argued that by not challenging the sentence, his original counsel failed him. The district attorney’s office agreed with this assessment, according to Cormac Boyle, Harris’s attorney and a member of the Promise of Justice Initiative. A statement released by PJI stated that Harris was resentenced to nine years, which he has already served. Boyle said that upon release, Harris plans on moving to Kentucky to be near his family.
“It is certainly time for Louisiana to rethink how it uses the habitual offender law,” Boyle told the New Orleans Advocate. “While in theory such a law may be fine, in practice it perpetuates and exposes some of the worst aspects of the criminal justice system.” Boyle additionally pointed out how such laws often disportionately affect Black people.
I’m simply in shock that Harris was sentenced to life in prison for selling less than a gram of weed. This wasn’t some mastermind overseeing a mass distribution operation or even a dude selling an eighth. The fact someone was going to spend his life in prison for something people are now doing legally across multiple states only goes to show how badly reform is needed for the nation’s drug laws.