The powerful sheriffs’ association voiced concerns Thursday that violent offenders might be released as a result of the sweeping criminal justice revamp aimed at reducing Louisiana’s prison population.
“Louisiana sheriffs are concerned that although current proposals discuss reduction in costs and prisoner populations as major factors for consideration, there is little consideration for the additional crimes committed by violent offenders,” the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association said in a statement released to The Advocate. “We oppose reductions in sentences of violent offenders.”
The association represents the state’s 64 sheriffs, who often are the best known elected official in a parish, and nearly 14,000 deputies. Their support is crucial to the success of the package of bills that would change how Louisiana prosecutes and punishes criminal defendants.
The state’s district attorneys also have raised questions about much of the legislative package Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is pushing.
The bipartisan effort includes measures that would lower criminal sentences, focus more on diversion rather than prison, and improve rehabilitation programs for convicts. The legislative package would reduce the state’s prison population by an estimated 13 percent over the next decade and that would save the state about $300 million.
Conservative groups, community activists, and church groups are supporting the revamp.
“The administration has worked closely with the sheriffs on Criminal Justice Reform, and we've appreciated their role on the bipartisan task force,” Edwards’ spokesman, Richard Carbo, said in a prepared statement late Thursday in response to the sheriffs’ statement. “There's no question that the current system isn't working anymore, and we'll continue to work with them and solicit their feedback as the process continues.”
Ten bills reflect the recommendations of the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, a blue ribbon panel that included law enforcement, and are sponsored by some of the Legislature’s heaviest hitters. The bulk of that legislation is expected to receive a first hearing in committee next week.
The sheriffs additionally said that Senate Bill 220 and Senate Bill 139, two key provisions in the package, “merits further discussions, but only without the violent crime sentence reductions,” the sheriffs stated. They support reconsideration of further imprisonment of convicts over the age of 75, “but never in cases of murder or rape.”
SB220, sponsored by Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, would change the sentences that could be rendered for the different classes of felonies. SB139 is sponsored by Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, and would change the timeline for when an offender could be discharged from prison.
Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc on Tuesday told a legislative briefing organized by a coalition of conservative groups that he was worried about opposition to Senate Bills 220 and 139.
“The DAs oppose both,” LeBlanc said Tuesday, before the sheriffs made their views known. “If we don’t pass 139 and 220, the savings goes out window.”
Sheriffs cited concerns that 42 percent of released inmates commit crimes and return to prison again. “No empirical data has been offered pertaining to the effect of such reductions in sentencing of violent offenders on public safety of our communities,” the statement read.
The sheriffs said they don’t object to the concept of reduced sentences and alternative sentencing of non-violent offenders. “However, never in the discussion of the concept of Re-investment did we understand, read, or hear that violent offenses were to be included.”
The sheriffs referred to the killing in March of East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Shawn Anderson as their example. Brandon Wiley, who is suspected in the fatal shooting, had a lengthy rap sheet, including aggravated battery, unlawful tattooing of a minor, possession of a firearm and two counts of attempted second degree murder.
“We feel that during any future discussions concerning the reduction of sentencing of violent offenders, it is critical that we consider the recent case of Brandon Wiley,” the sheriffs wrote.