To quote Right on Crime’s director, Derek Cohen, “prison is for the people we’re scared of, not the people we’re mad at.”
However, this is not always the case in Louisiana, where a person who commits multiple felony offenses can lose their freedom for extended periods of time — even life — regardless of how minor the offense. Louisiana’s habitual offender policy made some unfortunate national headlines recently when the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the life sentence for Fair Wayne Bryant for attempting to steal hedge clippers. Bryant has already served 23 years of the life sentence. He had four prior felonies, ranging in severity from check forgery to a 1979 armed robbery — a violent offense for which he received a 10-year sentence. In fact, he received criminal sanctions for each of his prior offenses. Then he stole hedge clippers out of someone’s storage shed rendering him eligible for Louisiana’s harshest sentence, life without the possibility of parole, under the habitual offender enhancement.
The use of the draconian habitual offender law was overturned by the Louisiana Supreme Court in the case of Derek Harris, a veteran, sentenced to life after receiving his fourth, nonviolent felony conviction — a $30 marijuana transaction. As a result, Harris will soon be released after having served 9 years. There is the old adage if you don’t want to do the time, then don’t do the crime. However, the principles of freedom and liberty fundamental to the conservative worldview demand the time be proportional to the crime. Too often that is not the case.
Habitual offender enhancements might have a place in sentencing policy, but prosecutors must wield this hammer responsibly. The means such an enhancement must ultimately serve the ends of justice, fairness, and fiscal responsibility. These ends are not served in the cases of Harris and Bryant. Their final offenses triggered a severe loss of freedom that simply fail to match the severity of offense. Bryant will never know freedom in this life despite the final straw being stolen hedge clippers. Bryant will not be the only one absorbing the disparate sanction. In addition to the costs incurred from 23 years of incarceration, taxpayers will ultimately pay $1 million to incarcerate a man for life after he attempted to steal hedge clippers from an outdoor shed. They will pay around $240,000 to incarcerate Harris for a $30 marijuana deal.
Statistics from the Louisiana Department of Corrections indicate that the cases of Harris and Bryant are not anecdotal. In fact, 12% of the state’s prison population were sentenced under the habitual offender law. Nearly 58% are serving time as habitual offenders for nonviolent convictions like Harris and Bryant, and 534 people are serving life sentences. Also shocking, 10 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes account for 89% of those serving time under the habitual offender laws, with Orleans and Jefferson parishes accounting for nearly 57% of the habitual offender convictions.
There are more effective ways to curb recidivism that do not involve indefinite warehousing of nonviolent individuals that the criminal justice system has given up on. Probation, drug court, veteran’s court, and other specialty courts have proven to be effective in reducing repeat offenders. The public and the offender would be better served through community supervision in most of these situations. This is why Right on Crime has advocated for reforms that help make Louisiana re-entry ready.
As a conservative, I advocate for policies that make victims whole, demand proportional accountability, and improve public safety. Louisiana’s habitual offender policy has done little to serve these ends, but it has contributed to our unfortunate distinction as having one of the nation’s highest incarceration rate. A lot of groundwork has been laid to make Louisiana right on crime, including during the 2020 legislative session, but the Harris and Bryant cases show there is more work to be done.