Former U.S. Attorney Kenneth A. Polite 013018

Former U.S. Attorney Kenneth A. Polite takes the vote Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, of the Louisiana Felony Class Task Force on recommendations that Louisiana adopt a classification system that groups crimes and their sentences by severity rather than similarity.

A blue ribbon panel of lawyers and judges recommended Tuesday that Louisiana should group crimes of similar severity in categories that makes some sentences longer, some shorter.

But in vote after vote, the three prosecutors on the Felony Class System Task Force panel of 12 lawyers and judges opposed, raising questions about whether such an effort will succeed in the Louisiana Legislature.

“It’s tough for me to read tea leaves,” former U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, the task force’s chairman, said about turning the panel’s recommendations into law. “But I’m hopeful.”

The two legislators on the panel, who presumably would be first in line to carry any bill, aren’t sure they’ll pick up that task.

“What’s going to happen next is, I hope, we do more work on this,” said state Rep. Joseph A. Marino III, No Party-Gretna. He believes tiered classifications that group felonies and set sentences would benefit the state’s criminal justice system by adding more clarity about how much time convicted felons would actually stay behind bars for various infractions.

Two of the task force’s six meetings were taken up debating whether to even recommend moving to a classification system, he said. Not much time was available to delve into the complexities of state laws and sort out which crimes should go in which class, he added.

“We have a framework for a class system and most of the offenses have been assigned a class. It’s a good starting point,” Marino said. “I don’t think it’s ready to be put into legislation.”

Similarly, Baton Rouge Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor, the other legislator on the committee, said that while many of the ideas were good, he wasn’t ready to sponsor the recommendations as legislation. The report of the task force’s recommendations is going to every member of the state Legislature, and any one them could choose to draft a bill.

Instead, Claitor said he would look at simplifying the parole eligibility requirements, at which the task force suggested the Legislature take a hard look.

The task force was set up as a compromise in a bill sponsored by Senate President John A. Alario, R-Westwego. It was part of the legislative package that, with the help of the state’s district attorneys, last year dramatically revamped the state’s criminal justice system with a view to lowering Louisiana’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate.

Alario’s measure initially would have created a felony class system. But opposition that threatened to derail the entire criminal justice revamp persuaded Alario to turn his bill into a study task force that would recommend legislation. The group was charged with finding ways to simplify the criminal code in a way that defendants, lawyers and judges could better understand actual sentences.

Thirty-seven states, including Texas and Alabama, use a classification system that categorizes offenses.

Each of Louisiana’s crimes comes with its own punishment based on what legislators set at the time of passage. This has left the state’s criminal justice system with “haphazard and unwieldy” punishments that are inconsistent and confusing, according to the mandate under which the task force was working.

In a report due Thursday — based on Tuesday’s votes — the panel recommends the Legislature pass laws that would group crimes into classes A through F, with each level based on severity — rather than by similarity as they appear in law books now — and each level having a prescribed sentencing range.

For instance, the crime of inflicting serious injury on a member of the military now carries a sentence of up to eight years. Under task force recommendations, the felony would fall under Class E, which like computer fraud, second-offense cockfighting, bigamy and third-offense obscenity, would receive a sentence of no more than five years in prison.

The sentences for extremely violent crimes, such as murder and most sex offenses will remain the same.

Prosecutors countered that the problem is the number of specific crimes and punishments legislators have passed over the years — all of which contribute to a confusing array of conditions that go into calculating when an inmate can be paroled and released.

A better solution would be to reduce the number of crimes by systematically combining the elements of various crimes and have a single parole eligibility standard, said Robert Vines, the first assistant district attorney in the New Iberia-based 16th Judicial District. The federal system, for instance, requires the convicted serve 85 percent of their sentence regardless of the years imposed by a judge.

Vines said he is hopeful the rest of the state’s prosecutors take note of how he and the other two assistant district attorneys on the task force voted and opt to oppose the panel’s recommendations.

“Any time you change the landscape, there’s going to be opposition,” said Checo Yancy, director of Voters Organize to Education, who was in the audience for the votes. The New Orleans-based group works on rights for released prisoners. “This is only in the infancy stage of changing the way the felony class system has looked for years.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.