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He spent almost a decade in jail for selling less than $30 of marijuana. He’s finally free.

Derek Harris was able to secure an early release after his life sentence was recently reduced to time served.

He spent almost a decade in jail for selling less than $30 of marijuana. He’s finally free.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Derek Harris, a Black man from Abbeville, Louisiana, was sentenced to life in prison in 2008 for selling less than $30 worth of marijuana. Since then, the sale of marijuana has been legalized in several states, including California and Ohio. In Louisiana, first-time possession of the drug remains a criminal offense. While possession of marijuana has been decriminalized in the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, it was decriminalized statewide in 2015 to a $300 fine and/or 15 days in jail. Harris, however, continued to pay the price for his “crime.” He was finally freed last week after spending nine years in prison, CNN reports.



Harris was able to secure his release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary after his life sentence was recently reduced to time served, a press release from the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans-based nonprofit, confirmed. His release comes at a time when the risks of contacting coronavirus while incarcerated have increased exponentially. Mercedes Montagnes, the nonprofit's executive director, stated, “This delayed justice was a terrifying ordeal for Derek and his family. As COVID-19 rates continue to rise in DOC facilities, every day spent in Angola was a tremendous risk for Derek's health and safety.” However, his delayed release is a display of gross injustice for several reasons.



Originally, the Louisiana state Supreme Court sentenced Harris to 15 years in prison for selling an officer .69 grams of marijuana in 2008. Four years later, in 2012, he was re-sentenced to life in prison under the Habitual Offender Law. This particular law permits judges to mete out enhanced sentences to individuals who have previous convictions on their record. It has been criticized as unfair and harsh by criminal justice advocates who believe that the law is a major driver behind the state’s egregious rates of mass incarceration. Jamila Johnson, a senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, affirmed in a 2019 statement on the law: “Louisiana's habitual offender law is abused, misused, and ineffective. People suffering from addiction, mental illness, and poverty can find themselves in prison for decades for something as minor as stealing $14.”



Harris is only but one of the victims of the cruel legislation. Now, his attorney Cormac Boyle hopes to help him move forward as he believes securing his client’s release was only the first step in the long journey ahead. “Supporting Derek did not end with overturning his egregious life sentence and it did not end the day he walked out of Angola,” he stated. “Righting the harms done to a person through incarceration includes supporting their health, housing, and adjustment to their long-deserved freedom we need all the help we can get.” Though Harris worked in the prison's hospital for several years and is now a free man, he still has no job and is in desperate need of "basic help for medications and other necessities to get him started in his new life."



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