On June 1, a week past her 31st birthday, civil rights activist Catrina Wallace was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. This was a first arrest for Wallace, a single mother who became politically active when her brother was arrested in the case that later became known as the “Jena Six.” Wallace was part of a small group of family members and friends who built a movement that eventually brought 50,000 people to a September 2007 march in the small northern Louisiana town of Jena. The mass movement eventually led to freedom for the six young men, who have since gone on to college.
On March 31, a 12-person jury with one Black member convicted Wallace of three counts of distribution of a controlled substance. At her June 1 sentencing, Wallace received 5 years for each count, to be served consecutively. Even in Louisiana, the incarceration capital of the US, fifteen years for a first offense is somewhat exceptional, as is the stacking of consecutive sentences. “I’ve never seen a judge run anything consecutive, certainly not for drugs or a first offender,” says Miles Swanson, an attorney in private practice who used to work for the public defender’s office in Orleans Parish. “In New Orleans, a case like this probably wouldn’t even go to trial — they’d likely get offered probation.”
However, vast discrepancies exist across parishes. For example, an Orleans Parish man recently received probation for selling pot. Then, when arrested for the same offense a few miles away in St. Tammany Parish, he was sentenced to life in prison.
“Unfortunately, I’m not shocked by the sentence,” commented Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We used to use prisons for the people who really caused problems, and made us concerned about public safety. Now we use them for the people we’re mad at.”
For background on this story, see this previous coverage.
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute. He was the first writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience, and his award-winning reporting from the Gulf Coast has been featured in a range of outlets including the New York Times, Mother Jones, and Argentina’s Clarin newspaper. His new book is Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. He can be reached at email@example.com, and more information about Floodlines can be found at floodlines.org.