Source: Louisiana Illuminator
BY: PIPER HUTCHINSON
Giving a major win to state Rep. John Stefanski in his quest to become the “tough-on-crime” attorney general, the Louisiana Senate gave final passage Sunday to his bill to majorly increase penalties for fentanyl possession.
Stefanski’s legislation, House Bill 90, was approved on a 32-4 vote, with Democratic Sens. Gerald Boudreaux of Lafayette, Royce Duplessis of New Orleans, Gary Carter of New Orleans and Cleo Fields of Baton Rouge in opposition.
In its original state, the bill would have sent individuals convicted of possessing more than 28 grams of a substance containing a detectable amount of fentanyl to life in prison without a chance of parole.
Stefanski’s proposal was amended in a Senate committee to set up a tiered system that doles out increasingly harsher penalties for fentanyl possession based on the amount of drug and subsequent convictions.
For an initial offense of possession of less than 28 grams, the penalty is five to 40 years in prison, of which at least five is to be served without parole, probation or suspension of sentence, and may also include a fine of up to $50,000.
For a first offense of possession of at least 28 grams but less than 250 grams, the penalty is seven to 40 years in prison, at least seven to be served without parole, probation or suspension of sentence, and may also include a fine of up to $50,000
For the first offense of possession of 250 grams or more, the penalty is life in prison, at least 35 years to be served without parole, probation or suspension of sentence, and may also include a fine of up to $50,000.
For a second conviction of possession of 28 grams or more, the penalty is 30 to 40 years in prison, at least 10 to be served without parole, probation or suspension of sentence, and may also include a fine of up to $500,000.
For a third conviction of possession of 28 grams or more, the penalty is 99 years without the possibility of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence, and may also include a fine of up to $500,000.
While Stefanski, a Republican from Crowley, thinks the bill does not go far enough, he acknowledged that increasing the penalties for fentanyl possession would be a win for him.
Stefanski, one of three Republicans in the race for attorney general, has made cracking down on fentanyl a key part of his campaign to be the state’s top law enforcement official.
“I see [crime], as a state, is our number one problem,” Stefanski said in an interview earlier this year. “The AG’s office, even though it may not be the primary role, can’t run from that fight. We need it. We need to be a leader, we need to be going down and making sure you’re using every available tool that that office has to help fight crime”
While Stefanski has framed the bill as cracking down on drug dealers and manufacturers — arguing nobody else would carry around 28 grams of fentanyl — criminal justice advocates feel it reaches too far. They point out the statute being amended does not require all 28 grams of the substance be fentanyl but rather some part of the 28 grams contain a detectable amount of fentanyl. The distinction means proponents’ arguments that the proposal would only apply to drug kingpins toting enough fentanyl to kill thousands is not entirely correct, opponents say.
While Stefanski painted the hypothetical as extreme, the bill, when read plainly, could allow somebody in possession of an ounce of marijuana containing trace amounts of fentanyl to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Keny Levy, a criminal law expert at the LSU Law Center, said increasing penalties will not work.
“If the penalties we already prescribed for possession with intent to distribute aren’t doing enough deterrence, generally, raising the already draconian punishments even higher isn’t going to have much effect either,” Levy said in an interview earlier this year.
Stefanski’s proposal needs to go back to the House for concurrence on Senate amendments. He said before he asks for the house to accept the amendments, he wants to double check that the changes will fit into the current criminal code and that the governor would be open to signing the bill as is.