Cajun cook got 13 years for two joints
Bernard Noble, 48, an example of how drug laws are used to harvest black men for prison, was named the No. 4 prisoner in Louisiana deserving clemency. He was sentenced to 13 years and three months in prison for nothing, although his technical offense was “Driving (a bicycle) While Black.”
Bernard was riding a bike in New Orleans while visiting his father in 2010. Two police officers saw him pedaling, ordered him off his bicycle and searched him without probable cause. (Stop-and-frisk searches require mere suspicion, not probable cause, and are common rationale for stopping and searching minorities.)
Bernard had two joints two joints — 2.8 grams of pot. For this trivia, he was on his way to a decade in prison, courtesy of a Louisiana justice system that is exceedingly harsh on African Americans.
Bernard, a father of seven, is a good person. He’d worked his entire life, driving a truck, working as a janitor, doing odd jobs. Then, a few years ago, he found a little success, almost accidentally, as a popular Cajun food caterer in Kansas City, where he’d landed after Hurricane Katrina flushed him out of New Orleans.
Bernard was visiting his hometown to get ingredients for Cajun cooking and a New Orleans-style sweet shop. Then, two cops thought a black man on a bicycle looked suspicious.
“I would not make it back” to Kansas City, writes Bernard from jail. “My past would become my future, and my history confinement.”
Why drugs laws don’t work
Bernard had struggled with drug problems much of his life. “Drugs were pure pleasure from the moment I encountered them. I struggled to find a limit,” he says.
He’d been busted seven times for small amounts of drugs between 1989 and 2003 — pot every time, twice with cocaine. He ‘d been charged each time with possession, nothing more.
Bernard illustrates why the criminal justice system is no way to handle people with drug problems. Police can arrest any drug addict repeatedly, day after day, for using drugs because, after all, the person is a drug addict.
Drug users get labeled career criminals even when they commit no crimes other than being an addict. And any offense, no matter how trivial, can generate a long prison sentence — the difference between the “harm maximization” of drug warriors and the “harm reduction” strategy promoted by reformers.
Drug convictions count in the tally under habitual offender laws in Louisiana, federal courts and elsewhere. Bernard’s two joints equals a robbery. Non-violent drug users become the (false) equivalent of a veteran, violent criminals. It’s nonsense, but it’s the law in many places, driving both unjust sentences, racial disparity and prosecutorial power outside the control of judges.
“My past would become my future, and my history confinement.”
In the cracked world of criminal justice, Bernard wasn’t the accidental entrepreneur bringing Cajun cooking to Kansas City; he was just another suspicious black man on a bicycle — and a habitual offender at that.
Bernard, a success story
Bernard grew up poor. He never went to college. He struggled with drugs. But he always worked and never engaged in the “street life.”
“My life hasn’t been easy. I was born in New Orleans in the year 1966. I was the oldest of six children. We lived in the Uptown area in a one bedroom apartment. My mother’s main income was welfare, but she always worked part-time as a bar maid. She was a single parent. At age 12, I took on the responsibility of raising my younger siblings.”
Six children in a one-bedroom apartment.
Still, Bernard graduated from John Ehret High School, the largest public high school in Louisiana. He worked continually, even with his drug problems. Hurricane Katrina forced him out of town in 2005 and, at age 39, made him reevaluate his life. “Katrina was the change I needed.”
In Kansas City, “I took my roots and come up with a catering service — Cajun-style cooking along with home-made desserts. I had ownership of my own business. I’d become a more productive citizen and my life had taken a turn for the better.”
Ready to expand from catering out of a truck to serving in a storefront, Bernard returned home to line up suppliers of the spices and other ingredients specific to Cajun food.
Then, he was busted for “Driving (a bicycle) While Black.” His seven kids — including a son with autism and a daughter with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis — lost whatever emotional and financial support.
Law gone wrong
A judge refused to accept the prosecutors demand of 13 years without parole. He sentenced Bernard to five years.
The prosecutor appealed, saying Bernard’s drug possession offenses met the standards of the habitual offender law and a 13 year mandatory minimum sentence was required.
The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed 4-3 in an unsigned opinion. It said there was nothing exceptional about Bernard’s case — an unintentionally damning indictment of the Louisiana justice system — that made him worthy of a shorter sentence. An appeals court, forced to apply the ruling, was embarrassed: “This is not the case that our courts should be using as the poster child for harsh sentencing,” it said.
Bernard now lives in the Jackson Parrish County Jail. He cannot be paroled from his 13 years, three month sentence.
Two joints gets a black man 13 years in Louisiana.
“I replay my life and remember listening to jazz and rhythm and blues that moves your soul,” he says.