Covering Louisiana

Feb 21, 2014 5:03 PM by AP

Sentencing commission backs lesser pot penalties

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A commission that advises the governor on criminal sentencing issues is backing legislation to reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.

In November, the Louisiana Sentencing Commission turned down the idea of reducing sentences for people convicted of possessing marijuana. But after occasionally rancorous debate Thursday, the commission voted favorably on a measure that would do just that.

The Advocate reports the commission voted favorably on House Bill 14, filed by state Rep. Austin Badon Jr., D-New Orleans.

Ricky L. Babin, who chairs the Sentencing Commission, shook his head. "I never thought I'd see the day," he said.

"This is a policy recommendation to the governor," said Babin, who added he personally opposes the commission's stance. "It doesn't mean every individual here agrees with every resolution."

Gov. Bobby Jindal responded late Thursday to the Sentencing Commission's actions in a prepared statement: "We have not reviewed the specifics of these bills, but in general we are in favor of passing common-sense sentencing reforms that, when appropriate, lessen sentences for nonviolent drug use offenders while focusing on rehabilitation for offenders."

The debate over marijuana came as the commission considered recommendations on a number of bills being considered during the Louisiana legislative session that begins March 10.

Under today's law, an offender convicted the third time for possession of marijuana faces a sentence of up 20 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Badon's legislation would reduce third-offense penalties to a maximum of five years in prison and a $2,000 fine. Those convicted a second time for possessing marijuana, under HB14, would face a maximum two-year term and a fine of no more than $500, which is down from the law's five-year sentence and $2,000 fine.

It would create a fourth- and subsequent-offense possession charge that carries a sentence of no more than eight years in prison and a $2,000 fine.

State Sen. Robert Kostelka, a member of the commission and chairman of the state Senate committee most likely to consider the legislation, argued against the commission's stance. He said marijuana is dangerous and a precursor to harder drugs.

He also argued that lessening the sentences would hinder the ability to prosecute criminals.

Kostelka vowed to oppose the measures in the Legislature.

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