Our Views: New debate on sentences

With lives at stake in a surge of heroin overdose cases, most people would say they are willing to put heroin dealers in jail for a very long time.

With the state budget stressed and cobbled together with one-time money instead of recurring revenues, every dealer put away for a very long time is going to cost taxpayers a very great deal of money.

In Baton Rouge, Coroner Beau Clark confirmed 26 heroin-related deaths, five times last year’s tally with two more months ahead in 2013.

Clark believes that the state should raise mandatory minimum sentences for dealing heroin to 30 years, up from five years currently.

The justice in jailing heroin dealers is not in doubt. “You’re not a nonviolent offender if you’re selling heroin,” rightly commented state District Judge Mike Erwin in Baton Rouge.

But mandatory minimum sentences remain a controversial remedy.

At one time, heroin dealing was a life sentence. It was reduced as heroin cases declined, almost to the point of nonexistence in Louisiana. Today it’s an open question whether life sentences would have the effect of driving the deadly dealing from the state.

Mandatory sentences reduce the discretion of judges over particular cases. As a remedy for drug offenses, they are debated hotly among lawyers and law enforcement. “Enhancing the penalty is not going to stop people from wanting heroin, and if people want something they’re going to find a way to get it,” said Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.

But it’s not the usual liberal suspects who are concerned about mandatory minimums. Conservatives and liberals in the political arena are increasingly concerned with the costs of incarceration, both in direct state spending and in the difficulty of rehabilitating an inmate so he’s ready to be a contributing member of society when he gets out.

We commend the law enforcement community for speaking out, but we also recognize that lawmakers have to make judgments about the entirety of the criminal justice system. The heroin deaths this year across the state make some increase very likely, but how much?