Judges, prosecutors, corrections officials, legislators and the Governor’s Office came to an agreement Tuesday on a half dozen bills that prison reform advocates and the Edwards administration had said would rollback last year’s overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system.
The compromise made some adjustments to the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2017, but the changes aren’t as harsh as proposed in other measures working their way through the legislative process, said those involved in the negotiations that have gone for several weeks and ended about two hours before the compromise was unveiled at a Senate committee hearing.
Senate Judiciary C committee changed Senate Bill 389 to include the agreement, which will sideline a half dozen rollback measures, then advanced the omnibus legislation to the full Senate on a vote of 4-2.
But prison reform advocates, who mobilized hundreds to help pass the criminal overhaul last year, weren’t part of the negotiations and weren’t told about deal. They weren’t happy.
“It is completely out of character for Gov. John Bel Edwards and his office to cut a backroom deal undermining some of the most important bipartisan reforms of 2017 without including the input from key stakeholders that made the reforms possible — Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, Right on Crime and the policy experts at Pew,” said Sarah Omojola, policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a prepared statement after the hearing.
“With the changes made to SB389, the District Attorneys and Gov. Edwards have broken their promise to the people of Louisiana, who overwhelmingly support the reforms passed last year."
Richard Carbo, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, responded in an email: “We have said from the beginning that minor adjustments might be needed, and we’re happy to continue working with these various groups to ensure that the goals of reform are realized. ... Our conversations with that coalition have never stopped, and we’ll continue to engage with them as these policy decisions are made.”
Pete Adams, head of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association, said he had been assured by the governor’s staff that they were briefing the groups.
“We had no idea that the Governor’s Office weren’t speaking with the advocates,” Adams said.
The compromise covers a variety of technical issues that prosecutors and judges wanted to see fixed, including how restitution is repaid, what absconding from probation actually entailed, and how many technical violations did it take to revoke the probation and imprison the offender.
Probably the biggest sticking point was the term of probation.
The new law set the term at three years. But prosecutors and others wanted to roll back the term to five years. Edwards refused to budge.
Negotiators agreed not to change the three-year probation term, but to allow judges to terminate probation early, once the offender satisfactorily completed the rehabilitative programs, training and other conditions that are part of the sentence. But judges also have the ability to extend probation terms up to another two years if the defendant has failed to complete the terms of probation.
The deal also adjusted wording to ensure that compliance credits for good behavior that goes to lowering a sentence are actually earned.
One of the key architects of the deal, Baton Rouge Republican Sen. Dan Claitor, apologized to the advocates.
“The Governor’s Office has done a terrible job communicating with me and apparently with the people behind me,” Claitor said. “I apologize for being dumb enough to think that what the governor’s office said was true.”
Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, and New Orleans Democratic Sen. Troy Carter asked Claitor to hold the legislation to allow time for the advocates to have a chance to study the proposed compromise.
“I think it’s important we’re all on the same page,” Carter said.
Claitor, who chairs the committee, said he wanted to press on and get a vote from the full Senate and over to the House before the Legislature adjourns on June 4. Added to the calculus is an effort to finish up quickly so that a special session can be called in mid-May to raise revenues if necessary.
If SB389 is sidetracked, then Claitor said other measures, such as House Bill 195, would take the lead. HB195, by Albany Republican Rep. Sherman Mack would allow judges to extend probation from a three-year term to five years.
Mack’s bill was sidelined as part of the negotiated settlement.
“I don’t see any alternative but to go with those other bills,” Claitor said.
“I’d appreciate the opportunity to meet," said Will Harrell, senior policy counsel for the New Orleans-based group VOTE, which has been seeking alternatives to incarceration.
“We’re here all week,” added Omojola, of the Poverty Center.