James Belt

James BeltJames is serving mandatory life without parole for distribution of 0.10 grams of crack cocaine because his addiction-related priors classified him as a habitual offender.

James grew up in a public housing project in New Orleans, Louisiana with his three siblings. Through sheer determination and hard work, James graduated from high school, earned his Associates Degree, and was accepted to Loyola University. Unfortunately, James was introduced to crack cocaine during his first two years in college.  His recreational use soon spiraled into weekly use and James was spending about $30 to $40 per week on crack.  By the time of his arrest for the current offense, James was using nearly $200 worth of crack every week. 

When James was sentenced in 1993, he entered an in-patient drug treatment program and remained sober for 9 ½ months. Determined to turn his life around, James began working as a cook and saving money to go back to college. He relapsed but continued to work as a cook in the Orleans Parish School District for the next 14 years. In 1996, James retired believing that he had finally saved up enough money for college. Despite his hard work, James could not afford college tuition and took jobs as a warehouse supervisor, a truck driver, and a cook before his arrest.  
Meanwhile, James’ drug addiction was steadily growing. On February 19, 1999 James agreed to sell a very small amount of crack (0.10 grams) for his dealer. An undercover police officer purchased the crack for $10.  A few minutes later, police stopped James and, finding nothing on him, took his social security number. James was not arrested until two months later. 
Under Louisiana law, the sentence for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine is 5 to 30 years. However, because this was James’ third offense, he was classified as a habitual offender and automatically sentenced to mandatory life in prison. At the time of his arrest, James had been addicted to crack cocaine for 13 years. 
James has now been incarcerated for over a decade. Sadly, his mother has passed away and his three daughters have grown up without their father. James has participated in many substance abuse programs and is now proudly sober.  In the future, James wishes to counsel youth about the dangers of drugs to prevent other lives from being destroyed by addiction and incarceration.

The Facts: James Belt
State: Louisiana 
Sentence: Life without parole 
Offense: Distribution of 0.10 grams of crack cocaine 
Year sentenced: 1999 
Age at sentencing: 37 
Priors: Breaking and entering (see below) 
Projected release date: None

Nature of priors: James’ priors are directly related to his drug addiction.  In March 1993, James stole a credit card from his college roommate and was arrested after the card was reported stolen. James made bond but relapsed prior to his court appearance. He entered the house of a woman he previously dated to steal something to exchange for drugs.  On March 25, 1993 these charges were combined and James was sentenced to probation and drug treatment.  Five years later, James entered his friend’s house in an attempt to take something he could sell for drug money. He served four months in jail.  None of these offenses involved violence or weapons.