Pete Adams mug.jpg

E. Pete Adams, executive director for the Louisiana District Attorneys Association

The state’s district attorneys Friday released a sheaf of changes that, if adopted, could win their endorsement of the sweeping modifications being considered by the Legislature for how Louisiana prosecutes and punishes criminal defendants.

“If we can get some reasonable amendments on these bills, make them apply to some nonviolent offenders, I think we can get some things done,” said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys’ Association. “It’s the retroactive application to violent offenders that’s the problem. We are for trying to get something done, but not at the risk to public safety.”

Adams said they have been telling the governor’s office about their concerns for weeks.

The package of 10 bills aim to release about 13 percent of the imprisoned convicts and change sentencing standards for future prosecutions, which would reduce costs for Louisiana taxpayers by about $300 million.

Most of the bills, which are sponsored by heavy hitters in the Legislature, are expected to be heard Tuesday and Wednesday in House and Senate committees.

The district attorneys and the state’s sheriffs, who raised similar concerns Thursday, are among the most powerful interests in the state. But proponents of the package also are used to getting what they want from the Legislature.

Revamping the criminal justice system has broad support among conservative groups, liberal activists, businessmen and the faith-based community. The effort is part of Gov. John Bel Edwards legislative package.

Six of the 10 measures need minor adjustments in the prosecutors’ estimation, while the rest would need to be substantially rewritten, according to the Louisiana District Attorneys Association in a statement entitled “District Attorneys Support Justice Reinvestment.”

"We have not had an opportunity to fully review and evaluate the DA’s legislative report and the Sheriff’s Association’s position paper,” Jay Lapeyre, a board member for Smart on Crime, one of the conservative organizations pushing the initiative. “But it is important to note that nothing in these bills is pioneering – and even if passed, it would still make Louisiana more punitive than any other state. And that is what we are trying to do with this reform – make substantive reform to bring Louisiana more in line with other neighboring states"

Corrections Secretary James M. LeBlanc, who headed the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force that made the recommendations now written into the bills, said Friday he remains in full support of the proposed changes. “I and the Department's leadership will continue to work with stakeholders through the process,” he said.

The two key measures – Senate Bill 220 and Senate Bill 139 – would need substantive changes before the prosecutors could support them.

On Tuesday LeBlanc told supporters of the effort that without SB220 and SB139, the projected savings of the revamp were unattainable.

SB220, sponsored by Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, would revise drug penalties, reclassify felonies to make sentence lengths and parole eligibility consistent, consolidate laws on property crimes and raise the value threshold for charging a crime as a felony. Those convicted of felonies receive the most prison time.

The DAs noted that the legislation would make changes to nearly 600 statutes and needs further study. But, “we would support a substitute bill that amends penalties and benefit restrictions on a long list of felony statutes to be negotiated,” the association stated, including all non-violent offenses identified as drivers of incarceration.

SB139, by Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, would provide opportunities to consider parole for some of the longest-serving inmates, expand eligibility for alternatives to incarceration, and standardize release policies. Prosecutors criticized that legislation as too sweeping and complex, but would support the measure if the provisions were limited to non-violent offenders.

The DAs also raised questions about Alario’s Senate Bill 221, which would reduce the window of time for when prior crimes would count towards penalty enhancements under the “habitual offenders” law. Prosecutors want the "habitual offenders" law to stay intact but support amendments that reduce the sentencing enhancements for second and third felony offenders.

And the state’s district attorneys want see some changes to Senate Bill 16 before it progresses further.

SB16, by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, is the only bill to receive a committee hearing and advance to consideration by one of the chambers. SB16 would provide opportunities for parole consideration of some inmates sentenced as juveniles to life in prison with parole. Some of the murders are among “the worst of the worst,” the prosecutors say. They also oppose granting parole consideration to future juvenile second-degree murderers after serving 30 years.

“We will offer amendments to correct these flaws,” the DAs’ statement read. “Our support for this bill is contingent on the amendments adopted by the Senate.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.