The ink is barely dry on a draft slate of recommendations to overhaul Louisiana's criminal justice system and already battle lines appear to be forming for a fight in the Legislature over the proposals.
The toughest battle appears likely to be over whether to shorten the lengthy prison sentences for those convicted of the worst crimes, including murder, or offer those inmates a shot at parole in the effort to cut the state’s nation-leading incarceration rate.
The Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force — a panel of prison officials, state lawmakers, advocates and attorneys convened by the governor and the Legislature to draw up proposals for a sweeping reform of the state’s sentencing laws and prison regulations — will release a final version of their recommendations at a press conference Thursday.
The draft report, copies of which were provided to The Advocate by members of the task force, may be revised in the coming days before its release. State lawmakers are expected to consider bills to enact the report’s recommendations this spring.
Analysts at the Pew Charitable Trusts estimate in the draft report that the report’s consensus recommendations would cut the state’s prison population by 13 percent — or 4,817 inmates — by 2027 while saving the state roughly $305 million.
The estimates don’t include a handful of controversial proposals from the report that would allow those serving life sentences or lengthy prison terms for violent crimes the chance to be considered for parole under certain circumstances.
Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonpartisan public policy group, provided research and support for the task force after helping similar efforts in several other states.
The 26 separate policy proposals contained in the draft report cover everything from how felonies are classified to the rules governing parole eligibility for those sentenced to prison. The bulk of the proposals tackle sentences for nonviolent crimes, seeking to place more defendants accused of drug and property crimes on probation or in alternative treatment programs.
The proposed changes to the criminal justice system recommended by the draft report include:
• Create a classification system for felonies which would place crimes in tiers from “A” to “F” based on their severity
• Simplify the state’s criminal code by consolidating a wide range of similar offenses into a standardized set of offenses. For example, one recommendation would merge the state's 32 different statutes that address property theft — with separate laws addressing everything from "cheating and swindling" and "theft of anhydrous ammonia" to "theft of oilfield geological survey equipment" — into a single crime.
• Iron out discrepancies in prison terms between escalating offenses, such as adjusting state laws that make the unauthorized use of a car punishable by a stiffer sentence than outright stealing the same vehicle.
• Ease financial burdens heaped on former inmates trying to re-establish lives outside of prison and lessen sanctions on former inmates who are unable to afford to pay fines, fees and court-ordered restitution. Under current law, people who fall behind on payments can see their driver's licenses suspended and face jail time. One proposal would reserve such penalties only for those who willfully refuse to pay.
View the full 74-page draft report here.
A handful of proposals addressing the lengthy sentences being served by those convicted of violent crimes — including armed robbers, murderers and rapists — have stirred up considerable opposition, including among members of the task force.
Although 21 of the recommendations are listed a “consensus recommendations” in the report, those proposals, along with a recommendation to restrict the use of the state’s stiff repeat offender statue, are instead listed at the end of the report as “majority recommendations.”
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Laurie White, chief judge of the Orleans Parish criminal court and a member of the task force, said the bid to allow parole eligibility for the state’s longest-serving prisoners offered a needed break from the “tough-on-crime legislation” that led to the state’s massive prison population.
“We cannot afford to keep people locked up for these lengths of time and pay the medical expenses for the aging population in the prisons,” White said. “We're recommending eligibility to apply for parole, not automatically granted parole. You're not letting the worst of the worst out, you're letting the best of the best out," she said. "We're just giving them a right.”
White said the task force was in “lockstep” before the most recent meeting at which the Louisiana District Attorney's Association balked at a handful of proposals involving violent crime.
"I think the district attorneys are not going to be interested in anything that reduces jail terms," White said. "That's how we got into these extensively long mandatory minimum sentences — basically feel-good, tough-on-crime legislation. Everybody's for it until you start looking at the price tag and the age of the population. Those people are past their criminal menopause."
District Attorney Bo Duhe, of the 16th Judicial District, said the state's district attorneys support some of the recommendations, including the implementation of a class system for felonies. That measure, he said, would help to simplify the state's sentencing scheme.
But Duhe, the sole prosecutor on the task force, said prosecutors opposed all of the "majority recommendations" listed in the draft report, especially one that would afford the possibility of parole, under certain circumstances, to prisoners serving life sentences for offenses as serious as murder. Those proposals could jeopardize public safety, he said, and are akin to moving the goal posts "in the middle of the ball game."
"This shouldn't even be in consideration at this point," added Duhe, whose jurisdiction includes Iberia, St. Martin and St. Mary parishes. "There are things we can do dealing with nonviolent offenders. Let's work on those and make sure we're still respecting the victims, their families and the sentences that were imposed."
Catalene Theriot, who works with crime victims in Iberia Parish and is president of the statewide crime victims group VOICE, also expressed deep opposition to offering those serving life sentences a shot at parole.
Theriot, whose son was murdered in 1994, said she’d be outraged if his killer — who’s currently serving a life sentence — was given the chance to appear before the parole board.
“It's all a money thing to them — they're not thinking about the victims' lives,” Theriot said of those championing cuts to the state’s prison population. “If you have a life sentence, you should serve that life sentence.”
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Pete Adams, executive director of the influential Louisiana District Attorney’s Association, characterized the proposals to reduce sentences for violent offenders and grant parole eligibility to lifers as a "bait and switch."
He said proponents sold the reform effort as a bid to address non-violent criminals who pack the state's prisons. The task force, he said, added measures to shorten sentences for violent criminals late in the process.
"If there are truly non-violent and non-dangerous people being locked up, we need to do something to avoid that. We're all in on that idea,” said Adams. “But when you start having 'mission creep,' you're endangering the entire deal."
The draft report drew praise, meanwhile, from several advocacy groups.
Lisa Graybill, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the recommendations "envision a bold new future for Louisiana’s criminal justice system, based on carefully reviewed, evidence-based, and data-driven best practices."
"If enacted by the Legislature, the recommendations will be a significant step forward in realizing the reforms that Louisiana – with the highest incarceration rate in the U.S. and the world – needs to have a safer and more cost-effective criminal justice system."
Will Harrell, Southern Regional Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Campaign for Smart Justice, called the draft report "the best news regarding Louisiana criminal justice I've seen in my entire life."
Harrell described the draft report as a welcome, if late-coming attempt to follow other states that have undertaken similar measures aimed at reducing incarceration.
"Better late than never,” Harrell said. “All of our neighbors — Texas, Mississippi, Alabama — have been looking for ways to be smart on crime for years and have successfully reduced their prison populations while increasing public safety and saving hundreds of millions of tax dollars.”