His release comes amid a movement to overturn the nation’s rate of disproportionate and long sentences for Black Americans imprisoned for possessing small amounts of pot. Some of those sentences date to the stringent drug laws of 1980s and ’90s.
Derek Harris was arrested in 2008 in Louisiana for selling an officer 0.69 grams of marijuana. He had served nine years behind bars, according to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
He was resentenced in 2012 to life in prison under the Habitual Offender Law, which allows judges to impose stricter sentences on people who have been charged before.
But the district attorney’s office agreed that Harris had a substance abuse problem that started when he returned from the Persian Gulf War, which began in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, CNN reported.
“His prior offenses were nonviolent and related to his untreated dependency on drugs,” Louisiana Supreme Court Justice John Weimer wrote in his opinion, adding that Harris returned from his honorable military service in the Persian Gulf.
Harris was “not a drug kingpin” and didn’t fit what they thought of “as a drug dealer, so far as I can tell,” Weimer wrote.
Harris was represented in his challenge to Louisiana’s sentencing system by the Promise of Justice Initiative.
“Louisiana leads the nation in incarceration, and sentences more people to life without parole per capita than any other state,” the organization said.
Cormac Boyle, a lawyer who works with the initiative, said in a statement: “It is the ability to recognize our mistakes, and learn from them, that makes our system stronger and more just for all."
Today, the sentences seem especially discriminatory when other states are legalizing marijuana for medical and personal use, prison reform advocates say.
Nevada, for instance, where smoking a joint is now, legal, Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) is offering pardons to more than 15,000 people who were convicted of low-level marijuana possession.
“Today is an historic day for those who were convicted of what has long been considered a trivial crime, and is now legal under Nevada law,” the governor said in a news release. “Since the passage of [adult-use legalization] in 2016 and the decriminalization of possession for small amounts of marijuana, many Nevadans have had these minor offenses remain on their records, in some cases as a felony. This resolution aims to correct that and fully restore any rights lost as a result of these convictions.”
More than 15,000 people who were convicted of low-level marijuana possession in Nevada have been automatically pardoned under a resolution from the governor that was unanimously approved by the state’s Board of Pardons Commissioners.
Nevada voters approved a marijuana legalization ballot measure in 2016.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed legislation in May that decriminalizes marijuana possession.
Virginia became the 27th state to decriminalize recreational amounts of marijuana, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a cannabis legalization organization.