Gov. John Bel Edwards signs ‘raise the age,’ Real ID bills into law _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- Gov. John Bel Edwards signs the "Real ID" bill into law in June at a ceremony in the Governor's Mansion.

With the stroke of a pen at a Governor’s Mansion ceremony Tuesday, 17-year-olds accused of crimes will now be prosecuted as juveniles instead of through the harsher adult criminal justice system.

“Until today, Louisiana was one of only nine states that excluded all 17 year olds from the juvenile justice system,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said. Prior to this legislation, it had been 108 years since Louisiana reviewed the age at which children could be criminally prosecuted as adults.

“Alright, so we just raised the age,” he told supporters and legislators crowded around a table set up in the Mansion’s lobby.

Edwards signed into law about a dozen bills he supported during the regular legislative session that ended on June 6. The new laws include giving Louisiana drivers the choice of having a REAL ID license and another bill that would spread whatever money is available for TOPS equally among qualified students.

“When I look back on the regular session, I see successes that will have a real impact and benefit the people of Louisiana for a very long time,” Edwards said. Flavored water and chocolate chip cookies were served.

New Orleans Democratic Sen. JP Morrell, the chief sponsor fo the “Raise the Age” legislation couldn’t attend the ceremony because he was chairing a committee hearing.

Pete Adams, director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association stood behind Edwards as he signed along with other supporters. But the pen went to Eden Heilman, of the Southern Poverty Law Center. She’s planning to frame the pen in a photograph of Edwards signing the bill into law.

Under the new law, rather than automatically sending 17-year-olds to the adult criminal system, as an 18-year-old would be, they will be adjudicated in juvenile justice system. Edwards said the juvenile system affords a greater opportunity for rehabilitation.

Raise the Age” was one of three bills he signed addressing issues in the system that handles minors who commit crimes. Edwards called the package a down payment on a sweeping revamp of the Louisiana criminal justice system that he plans for the 2017 legislative session.

But first, Edwards said, state government has to fill a $600 million deficit, which has led TOPS to receive about half the funds needed to pay the college tuition for about 50,000 academically qualified students. He signed a measure that would distribute TOPS proportionally among all recipients instead of giving the limited dollars only to the highest qualifiers, which had been the system.

Edwards added that Senate Bill 470 was precautionary only. He said he intends to raise the money necessary to cover the $300 million costs of the Taylor Opportunity Scholarship Program, provided the Legislature agrees. Lawmakers are about half way through a second special session, which ends June 23. Revenues can’t be raised during regular sessions in even-numbered years.

Edwards also signed legislation that would allow Louisiana drivers to get licenses they can use to board airplanes and enter federal facilities.

REAL ID, a post 9/11 federal program aimed ensuring that driver’s licenses are accurate, has been controversial in Louisiana. The Legislature had previously approved adopting the federal standards, which opponents called invasive, but that bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Karen St. Germain, commissioner of the Office of Motor Vehicles, said Edwards’ signature should end the controversy that has been going on since 2008, when a law was passed banning compliance with the federal regulations. She said her office is still putting the final touches on the procedures and drivers will be given the choice to make their licenses REAL ID compliant starting in September.

She received one of the pens Edwards used to sign the bill. “I’m putting it right by a picture I have of him,” St. Germain said.

He signed more than 70 bills on Tuesday. Edwards has not vetoed any legislation, so far.

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