A Black U.S. military veteran who was sentenced to life in prison for selling less than a gram of marijuana has finally walked free after being incarcerated for nearly a decade.
Derek Harris of Louisiana was arrested in 2008 for selling 0.69 grams of cannabis, estimated to be worth under $30, to an undercover officer.
While he was initially sentenced to 15 years in prison for the crime, in 2012 he was re-sentenced to life imprisonment under the state’s controversial Habitual Offender Law, which allows judges to impose far harsher sentences on defendants with prior criminal charges if they see fit.
But in a win for Harris, his family, and criminal justice reform advocates, on Tuesday the former convict was released from Louisiana State Penitentiary after serving a substantially reduced sentence of nine years, according to a statement from New Orleans-based nonprofit group the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI).
Upon being released from prison, a beaming Harris thanked God, his family, and all of his legal supporters.
The release of Harris comes as incarcerated people nationwide face the high possibility of COVID-19 infection due to being kept in the tight and often overcrowded confines of jails and prisons, posing the risk that prison sentences are unjustly turned into death sentences.
“This delayed justice was a terrifying ordeal for Derek and his family,” said Mercedes Montagnes, the executive director of PJI. “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.”
Although Harris has finally been freed from the living nightmare of a life behind bars, he is now leaving prison without a job and the need for basic assistance to help him find medications and the necessities to help him restart his life.
“Supporting Derek did not end with overturning his egregious life sentence and it did not end the day he walked out of Angola,” said Harris’ attorney Cormac Boyle. “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.”
Supporters of Harris are hoping to crowd-fund the money necessary to help him out. A GoFundMe campaign started earlier this month has already exceeded its $10,000 goal, but the family has expressed appreciation for any additional help.
Harris had developed a substance abuse problem following his return from Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. operation launched by the U.S. during the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
In 2008, he was arrested in Abbeville, Louisiana after attempting to sell the small amount of marijuana to an undercover officer. In 2012, the sentencing judge gave him life in prison due to Harris’ previous offenses of theft and dealing cocaine;
Advocates have depicted Harris’ case as illustrative of the deep injustices of Louisiana’s criminal justice system and the way in which the habitual offender law has disproportionately harmed Black defendants in the state and driven the mass incarceration of people convicted of nonviolent crimes.
“Louisiana’s habitual offender law is abused, misused and ineffective,” said Jamila Johnson, a senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, in a 2019 statement. “People suffering from addiction, mental illness, and poverty can find themselves in prison for decades for something as minor as stealing $14.”
“Instead of addressing the root causes of repeat offenses, the habitual offender statute punishes these symptoms,” Johnson added. “And Louisiana taxpayers are footing the bill for these long, harmful, and ineffective prison sentences.”
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