A man named Derek Harris has spent the past 9 years in prison over a $30 marijuana sale, after being sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars for the offense. Luckily, he will finally be freed from prison after a Louisiana Supreme Court decision last month granting his release.
Cormac Boyle, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative who represents Harris, said 15th Judicial District Attorney Keith Stutes’ office agreed that Harris did not have adequate representation during his sentencing hearing, which resulted in the outrageous sentence.
Harris claimed that his attorney did not even give any defense when the judge sentenced him to life in prison for such a small amount of marijuana.
Harris was initially sentenced to 15 years, but was then later resentenced to life in prison under the state’s Habitual Offender Law, which gives judges the discretion to significantly extend the sentences of defendants with a prior criminal record. However, while extending the sentence, the judge claimed that he had no choice but to condemn Harris to life in prison. The defense attorney did not question or protest the order.
Harris’ prior convictions took place many years before his most recent arrest. In 1991, Harris was convicted for selling cocaine and was then later convicted of simple robbery in 1992 and 1993, simple burglary in 1997, theft under $500 in 2005, and distribution of marijuana.
The judge that made the original ruling has since retired, but District Judge Laurie Hulin approved the new sentence, ruling that Harris has already served enough time in prison.
The ruling has brought the state’s habitual offender law, under scrutiny, with legal experts suggesting that it has been used to disproportionately target people of color. Once he is released, Harris plans to relocate to Kentucky where he can rebuild his life with his brother and family.