Rep. John Stefanski addresses the Louisiana House of Representatives March 30, 2022, during its veto override session. (Wesley Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)
State Rep. John Stefanski, running to be the “tough on crime” attorney general, wants to put people in prison permanently for fentanyl possession, but critics are concerned his proposal will do more harm than good.
Stefanski’s legislation, House Bill 90, received near-unanimous approval Tuesday from the House Criminal Justice Committee. The bill would send 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. All of the committee’s Democrats and Republicans supported the bill, with just committee chair Rep. Joe Marino, I-Gretna, standing in opposition.
The bill is a key part of Stefanski’s bid to be the state’s top law enforcement official.
At nearly every campaign stop, in nearly every social media post, Stefanski touts being tough on crime and sells himself as the “law and order candidate.”
“I see [crime], as a state, as our number one problem,” Stefanski said in an interview. “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 that nobody else would be carrying 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. That distinction means proponents’ arguments 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. In an interview after the meeting, Stefanski conceded these criticisms were valid and said he was open to tightening up the language.
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Critics pan punishment approach
Louisiana needs medical treatment for addiction, not criminalization, said Dr. Smita Prasad, an addiction medicine expert at Tulane University School of Medicine.
“The emphasis really needs to be on treatment and getting people into long-term recovery, the things that are going to help rewire the brain once the pleasure-reward pathways hijack our decision making capacity,” Prasad said.
Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, a former sheriff’s deputy, pushed back on the idea that addiction treatment was the answer.
“We talk about treatment, treatment and we talk about ‘treatment is the answer,’ but it hasn’t proven to be the answer,” Bacala said.
Prasad said drug addiction treatment is not nearly accessible enough in Louisiana.
Keny Levy, a criminal law expert at the LSU Law Center, said increasing penalties doesn’t 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.
Levy argued the drug problem is a matter of supply and demand. While Stefanski’s proposal takes aim at the supply aspect, lawmakers need to discuss how to address the demand, he said. Lawmakers should consider societal factors that contribute to drug use and work on policies to address the system factors, such as poverty, that created the environment that allows drug use to proliferate in the state, Levy suggested.
Edward Shihadeh, a professor of criminology at LSU, expressed concern that more drug laws can lead to more drug crime.
“Sometimes drug enforcement can be used really as an attack against a group,” Shihadeh said. “That’s part of it as well. “
Other critics raised concern about the provision that does not allow for a chance for parole.
Terry Landry, Louisiana policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the organization is against life in prison without parole in all circumstances, as he views it as a contributing factor to Louisiana’s over-incarceration problem, and does not allow for rehabilitation and reintegration of the prison population.
Landry’s concern was also echoed by Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, an advocate for criminal justice reform. Stefanski told Marcelle he was open to working with her about her concerns but would not commit to supporting an amendment to the bill.
Levy lamented that candidates preach making criminal laws more punitive rather than discuss big-picture questions.
“Why are so many people abusing drugs, overdosing on them and dying? Why is there such greater demand than ever? Why hasn’t the war on drugs worked? How can we more effectively prevent or minimize drug abuse, addiction, overdoses and deaths? What policies beyond just legal policies can we implement to really finally address this problem?,” Levy asked.
“Those are the questions I’d love to hear candidates talking about, but they’re just going back to the lazy 1980s war on drugs, put them all in jail approach… and it’s not going to work,” Levy said.
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