Five criminal justice bills that supporters say would make citizens safer and save taxpayers’ money moved a step closer to becoming law Saturday.
The Senate Judiciary B Committee approved all five bills without objection. Sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, they are part of a package of 10 bills backed by an unusual coalition of liberals, centrists and conservatives that includes Gov. John Bel Edwards, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Louisiana Family Forum and the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry.
Supporters say the bills together would reduce the inmate population by 10 percent over the next decade, saving the state $262 million over that time. The Legislature would pledge to reinvest $184 million of the savings – or 70 percent – in programs to support crime victims and to rehabilitate inmates so they wouldn’t return to prison after their release.
Lobbyists for the various groups – as well as several citizens mobilized to turn out – provided a stack of green cards to the committee on Saturday for each measure to indicate their support.
The five measures approved Saturday now move to the full Senate and may be heard as early as Sunday. The measures aim at would-be criminals, criminals in prison and former criminals as part of the effort to end Louisiana’s status as the country’s biggest jailer on a per capita basis.
House Bill 680 by state Rep. Joseph Marino, No-Party-Gretna, would suspend child care payments for inmates.
“It’s almost impossible for the person in jail not making any money to satisfy that debt,” state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, presenting HB680 for Marino, told the committee members. He noted that inmates with money would be required to continue with their payments.
House Bill 116 by state Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, would give crime victims a greater voice when inmates are being readied for release or are up for parole.
House Bill 519 by state Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, would allow ex-inmates to qualify for an occupational license without having to pass through provisional status.
House Bill 249 by state Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, would allow judges to tailor restitution payments to offenders’ ability to pay and establish penalties when they don’t make certain payments or fail to appear at court hearings called when they have missed payments.
“You’re not letting them out of it because they don’t want to pay?” asked state Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, who chairs the committee.
“The judge has to make a determination that it’s willful,” replied Magee, adding that the bill aims to keep former inmates from committing another crime to earn money to pay their debts.
HB249 is the only bill that drew opposition. Two criminal court judges said they feared it would inadvertently limit their flexibility in how to handle former inmates not paying their debts.
House Bill 489 by state Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, attempts to bind lawmakers in the future to telling them they must direct 70 percent of the savings from reduced incarceration rates to the rehabilitation and victims’ support programs.
State Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, told Leger that he supported the idea but expressed concern that lawmakers would divert the money to other programs. Leger responded that the legislation was drawn as tightly as possible to prevent that.
Inmates could get a break on their child support payments while sitting behind bars and unab…
Earlier Saturday, the Senate approved a sixth bill in the overall package. House Bill 681 by state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, would eliminate restrictions that currently keep those with drug convictions from receiving food stamps and other aid during the first year of their release. HB681 must return to the House for approval of the Senate amendments.
The seventh bill in the criminal justice package, Senate Bill 16 by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, has won preliminary approval in both the House and the Senate. The bill would make it more difficult to sentence juveniles to life without parole. Lawmakers from both chambers are haggling over the final amendments in a conference committee before they give final approval.
The other three measures – Senate Bills 139, 220 and 221 -- rewrite sentences for most drug offenses, reducing penalties for low-level drug possession offenses and scaling prison terms based on the amount of drugs involved. The legislation also overhauls the state's numerous theft statutes and reduces or eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for several other non-violent crimes.
Three key bills in a criminal justice overhaul package, which will reduce sentences and expa…
Rebekah Allen of The Advocate Capitol News Bureau contributed to this report.