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Kenneth Polite

Members of a task force charged with simplifying Louisiana’s criminal code can’t seem to agree on what to do. Nevertheless, next week they will be recommending to the Legislature how to go about classifying crimes.

Prosecutors say the task force has focused too much on making sentences more lenient rather than on categorizing criminal laws.

Others on the 12-member panel say more time is needed.

Everyone seems confused by the methods – called the “backend” – the state Department of Corrections uses to calculate when an inmate can be released before the end of the sentence.

Some members want to include changes in how parole is determined as part of the classifications. Others disagree.

Come what may, former U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, and chairman of the Felony Class System Task Force will call for a vote on how best to group more than 600 crimes into A, B, C, D classifications that tailor penalties to fit the severity of the offense.

“Several members of the task force have expressed an interest in tying back-end sentencing into the class system,” Polite texted. “I expect that we will address various suggestions on the issue, and if there is consensus as to one, it will be part of the formal recommendation. If not, I expect the report to reflect our recommendation that the legislature and the Department of Corrections work to simplify the back-end system in the near future.”

The task force was supposed to gather Friday in the State Capitol, but that meeting was postponed late Thursday because of the icy conditions on the state’s roads. The hearing will be rescheduled for sometime next week, Polite texted Thursday night.

Texas and Alabama uses a system that categorizes offenses. But each Louisiana criminal law comes with its own punishment for infractions.

That has led to sentences being all over the map.

For instance, a gunman who shoots the victim during an armed robbery could be charged with attempted murder, which has a sentence of one to 50 years, explained Louisiana Public Defender Jay Dixon, who is a member of the task force. If the gunman doesn’t pull the trigger, then the charge is armed robbery, which could send the defendant to prison for up to 99 years, he said.

“There are all sorts of weird anomalies in the code that don’t need to be there,” Dixon said. “This is not about lessening sentences, it’s about uniformity.”

First Assistant District Attorney Rob Vines, of New Iberia and a member of the panel, disagrees.

“No evidence has been presented to show that a class system will address and remedy the stated goals of the legislation, which is to simplify and make more transparent the sentencing process in Louisiana,” Vines said, adding that what the task force is really about is “lower sentencing ranges, releasing criminals from jail, and saving money without concern for the costs to public safety.”

The state’s prosecutors were instrumental last year in passing a package of 10 bills that changed the way the state’s criminal justice system operates. Part of what of persuaded the prosecutors to endorse the package was Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, dropping legislation that created felony classifications. He changed the wording of his bill to creating this task force to study the issue and make recommendations to the Legislature.

Backing by the prosecutors is seen as important to passing into law any legislation promoting a felony classification system.

Vines said the criminal code is organized well now. Crimes are pretty much in the same section of the law books. Prosecutors can look from one to another law when trying to match the elements of an individual incident to the appropriate crime, he said.

If the task force’s real purpose is to lower sentences and release more inmates, Vines said, then the panel should instead focus on the bewildering maze of rules for calculating when an inmate can leave prison before his sentence is complete. Dozens of different factors have to be considered, such as the inmate’s good behavior, participation in instructional and treatment programs, crime committed, and age.

Looking at the backend of the system wasn’t really part of the task force’s brief, said panelist Sen. Dan Claitor, a Baton Rouge Republican who was a prosecutor and now practices some defense law.

“At the end of the day, classifying felonies makes it more transparent and easier to understand. I don’t see that as being objectionable. One of the things that has come out several times, though not part of our task, it has become pretty clear that the back-end calculations are so confusing you need an expert to figure it out,” Claitor said.

“Even I can’t make sense of it, all these different things, and I deal with this every day,” said state Rep. Joseph A. Marino III, No Party-Gretna, who handles some criminal defense work when not attending Felony Class System Task Force meetings as a member.

Perhaps, the back-end criteria could be included in classifications, but that will require more time, he said.

“It’s a really big job,” Marino said. “Personally, I think it needs more time and needs more work.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.