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Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, speaks with Voters Organized to Educate director Checo Yancy, center,who spent 20 years of a life sentence in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola before his sentence was commuted by Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, and John Burkhart, left, Criminal Justice Reform Field Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center in New Orleans, in the back of the House Chamber before expected debate and action to restore the right to register to vote to most felons on probation or parole five years after they leave prison, Thursday, May 17, 2018 at the State Capitol.

Back in March, about 500 protesters marched on the State Capitol shouting, “No rollback!” after a dozen bills were filed that essentially would have gutted a sweeping revamp, passed just last year, that fundamentally changed the way the world’s leading prison warden prosecuted and punished criminals.

“There was real fear. Especially when you saw all those bills that were filed,” said Rep. Joe Marino, a criminal defense attorney in Gretna who was involved in passing last year’s criminal justice package and its implementation.

But by the time legislators adjourned late Friday night, the main bill sent to the governor had the backing of prison reform advocates, prosecutors and judges.

“We ended up in a good spot. We made some responsible adjustments,” said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.

While the attention was on changes to the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act of 2017, which aimed to reduce the state’s notoriously high incarceration rate and funnel the savings into programs to help lower recidivism, two other measures came out of left field. One bill asks voters to decide if Louisiana should require unanimous juries to convict serious felons, like 48 other states do. The other would restore the right to vote to convicted felons five years after their sentence is served.

“Taken together, it’s a dramatic shift in the consciousness of Louisiana that bodes well,” said Will Harrell, counsel with the Voice of the Experienced, or VOTE, a New Orleans-based group that advocates for changes in the criminal justice system.

Other bills were passed that tightened eyewitness identification standards. Another would allow older veterans serving long prison terms to mentor veterans newly convicted of crimes.

Others failed, such as changing habitual offender definitions that keep those convicted of multiple minor crimes locked up for a long time and commissions to oversee prosecutorial misconduct. Other legislation was watered down, such as an effort to give second-degree murderers over the age of 55 who had served 20 years of their life sentences a chance for a parole hearing.

But it is the big three — felon voting, criminal justice adjustments and unanimous juries — that could lead to the most dramatic changes. Neither Harrell nor Adams were expecting the unanimous jury legislation.

Senate Bill 243, sponsored by Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, would place on the Nov. 6 ballot a measure to amend the state constitution to require unanimity for all felony jury verdicts.

Enshrined in the state constitution since the Jim Crow era, the present law requires only 10 of 12 jurors to agree in serious felony trials. Lesser felonies are tried to six jurors who must be unanimous in their verdict.

Though some individual prosecutors opposed the legislation on technical grounds, the powerful District Attorneys Association remained neutral, Adams said.

The Senate had passed the legislation April 4 with a 27-10 vote. But the heavy lifting was in the House, specifically in the Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice, which is stacked with conservative Republicans and former lawmen.

Committee Chairman Sherman Mack, an Albany Republican lawyer considering a run for district attorney, said his initial take was to oppose unanimous juries. After all, the current method had always been done that way and appellate courts, even the U.S. Supreme Court, had repeatedly upheld the practice.

But Morrell phoned and asked Mack to review the evidence, then pray on it.

“That’s exactly what I did,” Mack said. He was most persuaded by transcripts of the 1898 constitutional convention in which proponents flat out said they wanted to reassert white supremacy and rid the voter rolls of African-Americans.

“If you’re not willing to listen and be open to the other side, then you’re not really doing your job,” said Mack, whose committee unanimously backed the legislation. The House gave final approval Wednesday.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards on Friday night backed the legislation, citing the racist beginnings and uses of the 10-2 law as his reasons.

Edwards also backed restoring felons’ right to vote. When the House gave final approval Thursday night, he went downstairs to congratulate Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

Smith and Checo Yancy, who was sentenced to life behind bars for felony crimes but has been released on parole since 2003, had tried for four years to get the voting legislation out of House committee.

Yancy, a member of VOTE, and other convicted felons had walked the halls of the State Capitol throughout the session buttonholing legislators to protect the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act and to tell lawmakers that despite their past crimes, they now work, pay taxes and want to participate in electing officials.

The state constitution prohibits people “under an order of imprisonment” on a felony conviction from voting. A 1976 law expanded that to people convicted of felonies but still on probation or parole, which effectively removes the right to vote.

Smith finally got House Bill 265 out of committee, but it failed twice before May 10, when a 59-42 vote sent the measure to the Senate, which approved it in four days.

Unanimous juries and felon voting rights are straightforward and attracted a lot of attention. But the legislation that will have the most impact on the way convicted criminals are handled was Senate Bill 389, which adjusted the maze of rules that govern when and how a convict serves a sentence on probation rather than in prison.

The Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act loosened some of the harsh practices adopted in the 1990s to combat crime. The package of 10 bills was backed in 2017 by an unlikely coalition of Democrats and Republicans, churches and businesses, prosecutors, sheriffs and prison reform advocates.

But people started to panic, Marino said, when faced in November with more than a thousand inmates getting out of prison early, usually by only a few weeks, but early nevertheless.

“People were ready to bail, and the act was only a couple months old,” Marino said.

He and state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, persuaded the legislators to put their bills on hold and gathered judges, prosecutors, sheriffs, probation and parole officers, and the Governor’s Office to see if they could come up with a compromise. The ultimate bargain addressed the term of probation for nonviolent offenders, how to deal with various credits that knocked time off the sentence and repaying victims for their losses. The agreed-upon concepts were merged into Senate Bill 389, sponsored by Claitor.

A key element is earned compliance credit that allows a probationer to knock a month off the back end of the sentence for every month he or she complied with the dictates laid down by a judge. That could mean that a person convicted of a nonviolent offense could be off probation in 18 months because the new law had shortened probation from five years max to three years.

It’s automatic, and judges felt they lost the discretion they needed to deal with individual cases in the new standardized procedure. Attend drug rehabilitation or anger management or job training courses for the month and that’s a check on the form that leads to one fewer month necessary to serve on probation.

SB389 essentially took the automatic out of the process and allows judges to review compliance. If the court reverses a compliance decision, then the inmate can seek a hearing.

The compromise gives the judge the ability to extend the probation term to five years if the probationer hasn’t finished the required programs.

The other key element is to ensure that victims are paid restitution. Probation could be extended until the victims are fully repaid. Most victims are repaid during the probationary period, but some probationers can’t afford to repay, and keeping them under supervision amounts to a debtors prison.

The compromise allows the remaining debt to be converted to a civil judgment upon completion of probation. This gives the victim the legal right to be repaid when the probationer becomes financially solvent.

All in all, Louisiana handled the sophomore wobbles better than couple dozen other states that have passed similar sweeping criminal justice revamps, VOTE’s Harrell said. He’s handled revamps in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Those states also attempted a roll back the year after the revamps were passed, he said.

“This is not unique to Louisiana. Year two is always the hardest. But by year three, the data will show recidivism is down, crime is down and the costs are down,” he said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.