In New Orleans, marijuana cases flood the system

New Orleans City Business reports that New Orleans District Attorney Keva Landrum-Johnson is filling up Louisiana's prisons with a new policy charging minor marijuana offenders with felonies if they have prior convictions. Landrum-Johnson's predecessors routinely exercised their discretion to treat such offenses as misdemeanors, but Landrum-Johnson has reversed that policy, racking up felony prosecutions and demonstrating her "tough-on-crime" credentials.

The New Orleans CityBusiness, which is conducting an investigation into how police and prosecutors are spending public resources seeking lengthy sentences for non-violent, low-level crimes, reports that the hundreds of new felony cases have been small-time marijuana users (a number that could reach as high as 4,000 by the end of the year), sometimes caught with less than a gram of pot and threatened with lengthy prison sentences. According to the New Orleans CityBusiness:

The resulting impact has clogged the courts with non-violent, petty offenses, drained the resources of the criminal justice system and damaged low-income African-American communities, [Steve Singer, chief of trials for the Orleans Public Defenders Office] said.

Targeting nonviolent drug offenders and tacking felony charges on people arrested for second and third marijuana possession offenses is not a new phenomenon in the racially-skewed U.S. drug war. The impact on communities of color in the South has been devastating. In New Orleans, low-income African-Americans make up the majority of those facing charges each month, many of whom typically can't afford bail and must sit in Orleans Parish Prison for extended periods of time unable to support their families.

"I don't understand why anyone would think marijuana possession should be a priority given everything else we're dealing with. But this is a convenient way of targeting a particular group of people," Ursula Price, senior organizer for Safe Streets Strong Communities, a community-based organization dedicated to criminal justice reform, told the New Orleans CityBusiness.

In a city known for its party atmosphere, it is hard to deny that the policy is being aimed at certain communities while ignoring other more privileged areas. Pointing out that it is well known that low-income African-Americans are not the only people in the Big Easy guilty of lighting up a joint every now and then, Tulane University criminologist Peter Scharf tells the New Orleans CityBusiness: "[African-Americans are] targets of opportunity, lower-class individuals without resources. And for the most part, the public doesn't seem to care. But you start arresting a bunch of Loyola and Tulane students and give them 12 years for smoking a joint and just see what happens. Parents will be out in the streets screaming with moral outrage and demanding justice."