Derek Harris, a Louisiana man who was sentenced to life in prison for selling less than $30 worth of marijuana, has been freed after nearly a decade behind bars.
Harris’ life sentence was recently reduced to time served — nine years — and he was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, according to a Tuesday news release from the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans-based nonprofit.
His release comes at a time when prisoners across the country face heightened risks of coronavirus, with many institutions reporting hundreds of cases among prisoners and staff members.
“This delayed justice was a terrifying ordeal for Derek and his family,” Mercedes Montagnes, the nonprofit’s executive director said. “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.”
Harris’ release is just the first step in helping him move forward, his attorney, Cormac Boyle said.
“Supporting Derek did not end with overturning his egregious life sentence and it did not end the day he walked out of Angola,” Boyle said in a statement.
According to the release, Harris used to work in the prison’s hospital for years but is now a free man with no job and in need of “basic help for medications and other necessities to get him started in his new life.”
“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,” Boyle said.
About .69 grams
Harris, a military veteran, was arrested in 2008 in Abbeville, Louisiana, for selling an officer .69 grams of marijuana. He was initially convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, according to the state’s Supreme Court.
In 2012, he was re-sentenced to life in prison under the Habitual Offender Law, which allows judges to hand enhanced sentences to those who have previous convictions on their record.
Criminal justice reform advocates have pointed to the law as a major driver behind mass incarceration and claimed it often brought about unfair and harsh sentences for nonviolent crimes.
“Louisiana’s habitual offender law is abused, misused and ineffective,” Jamila Johnson, a senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, said in a 2019 statement on the law.
“People suffering from addiction, mental illness, and poverty can find themselves in prison for decades for something as minor as stealing $14.”