Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and Washington parishes accounted for a combined 25 percent of all newly sentenced Louisiana prisoners last year, but 92 percent of the 365 inmates sentenced under the repeat-offender law, the Pew data show.

Advocate file photo by MATTHEW HINTON

Prosecutors in Louisiana wield one of the stiffest habitual-offender laws in the nation, a strong lever to raise both the low and high ends of sentences for those convicted of repeat crimes — reaching 20 years to life for a fourth conviction, whatever the felony involved.

Yet just three district attorneys in the state actually invoked the law with any frequency last year, according to state corrections data analyzed by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office led the way, sending 154 convicts off to long prison sentences under the statute, the data show.

Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick's office, which led the state in newly sentenced prisoners last year, used the repeat-offender law 116 times.

St. Tammany and Washington parishes, under recently elected 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery, logged a combined 64 people sent to prison as habitual offenders, though Montgomery said new policies have cut that pace in half.

None of the 39 other judicial districts in the state — including East Baton Rouge Parish — shipped more than three people to prison under the statute last year.

Under the law, after a conviction of a repeat offender, a district attorney can file to have the convict's punishment enhanced on account of his criminal history. Prosecutors need only prove that the details of that history are accurate, and judges have little choice but to lengthen the convict's sentence, sometimes exponentially. Some plea deals also incorporate habitual-offender sentences.

The relatively infrequent use of the repeat-offender law statewide raises questions about how much it directly contributes to Louisiana's nation-leading incarceration rate — a costly distinction that Gov. John Bel Edwards has pledged to end.

And the fact the law is used almost exclusively in and around New Orleans highlights a wide variance in how and why prosecutors choose to unleash it.

Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and Washington parishes accounted for a combined 25 percent of all newly sentenced Louisiana prisoners last year, but 92 percent of the 365 inmates sentenced under the repeat-offender law, the Pew data show.

Task force eyeing reforms

The data were presented last week to a task force that is supposed to formulate a package of criminal justice reform bills for the 2017 legislative session.

An earlier Pew report found that Louisiana imprisons people on convictions for nonviolent offenses at a vastly higher rate than other states in the region with similar crime rates — a key finding that figures to loom large in reform discussions.

Last month, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera's office found a similar trend with the habitual-offender law, reporting that 78 percent of habitual-offender convictions were for nonviolent offenses, though some of those inmates may have had prior convictions for violent crimes or may have pleaded guilty to lesser crimes to avoid trial on violent offenses.

Purpera's office suggested narrowing the statute to limit its use on nonviolent offenders.

E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, suggested that the figures for nonviolent offenses are deceptive.

"The anecdotal stories I'm getting back are: You've got a guy with a long history of violent arrests, he's just a bad guy, and he ends up as a third felony offender on a murder case you can't get witnesses on, or you got him for drugs in the same incident," Adams said. "You don't prosecute the murder case; you put him away on the (charge of) felony intent to distribute drugs, which is what you need" for a lengthy sentence, even though it is listed as a conviction for a nonviolent offense.

He said prosecutors "are telling me, 'I may not use it a lot, but when I use it, I need it.' "

It's true, according to the data, that district attorneys in most jurisdictions use the powerful law relatively rarely.

Statewide, the 365 newly sentenced habitual offenders last year accounted for only about one in 20 of all newly sentenced prisoners. For Orleans Parish, however, it was almost one in four, according to the Pew data.

A spokesman for Cannizzaro's office called it misleading to compare parishes in their use of the law.

"You're dealing with different crime problems, socioeconomic levels, and you're dealing with different judges, different sentencing dispositions," said the spokesman, Christopher Bowman.

"If you were dealing with a situation where a prosecutor feels probation is being given too freely, then the district attorney is required to use the habitual-offender law."

Bowman described the repeat-offender law as "a useful tool that we don't use at every opportunity. We use it in a small minority of cases in which a defendant is actually eligible to receive it."

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Use of law trending upward

The data show that sentencing under the habitual-offender law has trended upward, though they list only the leading jurisdictions for 2015 and 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina, when Orleans Parish notched just 10 prison admissions under the statute.

Montgomery's office provided other state corrections data showing parish figures based on the total number of offenses — not inmates — that were sentenced under the habitual-offender law from 2010 to June 2016.

Those figures show the same trends. They also indicate that Cannizzaro, a former judge who assumed the Orleans DA post in 2009, ratcheted up sentencing under the statute two years later.

His prosecutors applied it to convictions on 197 criminal counts in 2010. That rose to 514 counts in 2012 before tapering off to 387 last year.

Montgomery said use of the statute in St. Tammany and Washington parishes peaked last year under practices that lingered from his predecessor, former longtime DA Walter Reed.

Montgomery said he sometimes uses the habitual-offender law as a threat for defendants to abide by the terms of diversion or drug court programs, but he leans away from using a law he described as "a big hammer."

He'll wheel it out, though, with "predators," he said. 

"I've told (his office's prosecutors) I don't like the multiple bill," Montgomery said, although, "as a general rule, if someone wants to make a career out of preying on others, (he) needs to be removed from society — that is the overarching purpose.

"It doesn't have to be people who are violent. If someone burglarizes homes over and over, that person is preying on people."

Connick's office declined to comment Friday on the data, which an official said the office had not yet reviewed.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore, whose office turned to the habitual-offender law just three times last year, according to the state data, said he reserved its use for extreme cases, like that of Donald Ray Dickerson, who was sentenced to life in May under the statute.

Dickerson had three prior felonies on his record when a jury convicted him last year of second-degree battery in a brutal attack on Mother's Day three years ago. Dickerson beat a St. Francisville man at a north Baton Rouge convenience store after telling the man he was in the “wrong neighborhood.”

"That's the kind of case we use it for," said Moore, who acknowledged he uses it sparingly. He counted four habitual offender cases from his office last year. The only one considered "non-violent" involved a felony hit-and-run involving serious bodily injury, he said.

"To us, it always comes down to public safety: Is the sentence for the underlying charge sufficient enough to protect the public?" Moore said. "I don't know that it's quite so easy to judge Baton Rouge versus Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany. We have different makeups and different judges and jury systems."

Effect on plea agreements

Pew did not break down the parish figures by the type of offense, though statewide it found that drug possession, simple burglary and theft charges were the most common "primary" offenses leading to habitual-offender sentences.

It is uncertain what indirect impact the habitual-offender law has on the size of the prison population because of plea agreements reached under threat of its use.

Criminal defense attorney Craig Mordock, who primarily represents people in the three New Orleans-area jurisdictions, said one result of the law is to boost conviction rates.

Most defendants would rather plead guilty to something than "get punished for going to trial," he said. 

"For multiple offenders who commit nonviolent crimes, (the law) takes the sentencing range for the conduct they committed into a violent-crime range," Mordock said.

Whether changes to the habitual-offender statute will form part of the expected package of proposed criminal-justice reforms at next year's legislative session is uncertain. 

Kevin Kane, of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a libertarian think tank that focuses on criminal justice reform in the state, said the total statewide numbers may understate their impact on the incarceration rate.

According to the Pew data, habitual-offender cases made up 5 percent of total Department of Corrections admissions last year but 15 percent of the state's prison population.

The difference is likely the result of longer sentences under a statute that also "flattens" many of those prison terms, increasing the portion that must be served before an inmate can be released. Montgomery said the law brings more prison time but less supervision upon release, under the premise that habitual criminals won't learn.

Pew did not release data on the average stay in prison for habitual offenders.

But the Louisiana inmate population overall is largely transient. Most inmates are serving relatively short sentences on convictions for nonviolent crimes and drug offenses, according to Pew.

"The most significant number of all is how many nonviolent offenders we put away compared to our neighboring states," Kane said.

"I think the habitual offender (issue), because the numbers just aren't that great, is really a sideline to the bigger problem, which is simply incarcerating nonviolent people."

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.