After a week of negotiations to find a middle ground on a sweeping criminal justice revamp, legislators put forward a compromise that Secretary of Corrections Jimmy Leblanc said will still accomplish at least 75 percent of the original proposal.
The three key bills, which are the backbone of the prison reform plan, got their first hearing in a Senate committee meeting on Tuesday where they were all unanimously approved and advanced to the Senate floor. While the bills moved forward, the State District Attorney's Association said they still have objections over parts of a bill that allow for parole opportunities and softer sentences for some violent offenders.
The bills are the foundation of a proposed overhaul to the state's criminal justice system, backed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, which are spread across 10 bills in the Legislative session. The totality of the bills was projected to reduce the state's prison population by about 4,800 people over 10 years, while saving the state $300 million. Half of those dollars would be earmarked for programs to curb crime, reduce recidivism and support victims.
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But the once sweeping revamps to the judicial system were dramatically restructured in negotiations.
LeBlanc said it was unclear on Tuesday what the impact of the compromise bills would be on the projected savings and inmate reductions. But he said they're within 75 to 85 percent of their goal.
As the result of negotiations, a key proposal to create a felony class system was delayed a year at the request of the state prosecutors. The felony class system was the centerpiece of the reform package. It intended to create an A-F classification system to categorize some 600 individual felony statutes, assigning penalty ranges, while strengthening uniformity and transparency in sentencing.
The felony class system was originally laid out in Senate Bill 220, sponsored by Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego.
Pete Adams, leader of the district attorneys association, said the state was moving too quickly and there could be repercussions to hastily revamping 600 criminal statutes without closely examining each of them.
Instead, the bill creates a Felony Class System Task Force, which will develop specific recommendations before the 2018 Legislature. This will be the second task force, as the original recommendation stemmed from a year long study by the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Task Force.
In lieu of the felony class system, the bill targeted several nonviolent crimes – including drug possession, theft, arson and fraud – and adjusted the penalties. It, in many cases, removed or reduced the mandatory minimum sentences, which would give judges more latitude to avoid jail sentences. For example, simple arson would change from a minimum of two years in jail to a minimum of zero years.
Lawmakers and the law enforcement groups appeared to have consensus on both of Alario's Senate Bills 220 and 221, which would change the state's habitual offender law, easing punishments for less serious prior felonies.
But still at issue is Senate Bill 139, by Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, which retained language that would expand parole opportunities for violent offenders among other changes.
The bill also expands parole consideration and drug court opportunities to more nonviolent offenders and establishes a medical furlough program, that Leblanc said will save the department millions of dollars.
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Medicaid dollars cannot be used for the incarcerated, so 100 percent of medical costs for inmates is covered by the Department of Corrections. A medical furlough program would allow the sickest inmates to temporarily leave to receive medical care in a hospital or nursing home, so Medicaid dollars could apply.
He said about 15 of the state's sickest inmates are costing a total of $5 million a year.
Adams told the Senate committee that the prosecutors would not support measures in Martiny's bill that ease penalties for violent offenders.
While the bill was unanimously passed out of the Senate committee, lawmakers acknowledged that it could be altered as it makes its way through the legislative process.
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Committee chairman Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, called the bills a "work in progress."
But Martiny urged the committee to keep a level head about his more controversial bill, amid testimony from opponents who were concerned about upticks in violent crime.
"There's not a word in this bill that says we will let violent persons out of jail," Martiny said. "What it says is that if you jump through hoops, and meet certain benchmarks, then you will get the chance to let someone hear why you're not violent anymore. That's all it does."
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