Gov. John Bel Edwards and criminal justice reform advocates are racing to appease critics in the law enforcement community who threaten to dilute a sweeping overhaul of the state's criminal code aimed at curbing Louisiana's bloated prison rolls.
Law enforcement leaders and high-level staffers for Edwards have met behind closed doors every day this week and figure to negotiate through the weekend over a compromise.
Prosecutors are negotiating the definition of “nonviolent” with the Governor’s Office to see…
Edwards and other backers of the proposed legislation aim to preserve much of the $305 million in savings that experts say would come from measures aimed at shedding nearly 5,000 inmates, and the state's label as the nation's leading jailer, by 2027.
They face a powerful lobbying tandem in the state's prosecutors and sheriffs, who oppose many of the changes in sentencing, parole eligibility or early release for violent inmates. According to figures from Pew Charitable Trusts, scrapping those changes would reduce the savings by about $40 million.
Instead, Pete Adams of the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association, said the group has agreed to a limited number of discrete changes to criminal statutes governing nonviolent offenders.
Erin Monroe Wesley, legal counsel to Edwards and a participant in the discussions, said she expects the two sides to strike a compromise before Tuesday, when three of the key bills in the reform package are scheduled to get their first hearing in a Senate committee.
People involved in the negotiations declined to specify what remains on the table, but several district attorneys said they're maintaining a hard line against any proposals that would affect those convicted of violent crime.
"At the end of the day, it's the district attorneys' opinion that we're not going to risk public safety," said Bo Duhe, a district attorney who sat on the state's Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which came up with the prison reform plan. "We can have a more safe public with some smart reform provisions that deal with less risky inmates."
But it appears the law enforcement objections go deeper.
Prosecutors also have proposed replacing a central provision of the reforms: Senate Bill 220, sponsored by Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego.
The 72-page bill would divvy hundreds of state criminal statutes into an A-F "felony class" system, each with its own sentencing range, while dropping mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes.
Advocates see the system as a linchpin to the reform plan, because other changes — including allowing more low-level offenders to serve their sentences on probation and moving up parole and early release dates for other inmates — are tied to its tiers.
Adams has proposed a far more modest set of revisions that would reduce minimum and maximum sentences for 42 nonviolent criminal statutes. "Virtually everyone with practical experience realizes that changing to a felony class system in the next five weeks is not prudent," Adams said in an email.
State Public Defender Jay Dixon, who sat on the task force, said the class system is meant to streamline an "extremely complicated" criminal code, which would allow convicts and crime victims alike to know when an inmate would be eligible for release.
The same reforms could theoretically be achieved by changing criminal statutes one by one, but scrapping the proposed class system "is a very effective way of scuttling everything," Dixon said.
"It just seems silly to avoid saving millions of dollars because it's too hard, it's too complicated. There are a lot of smart people that can make it work."
The task force recommendations were announced earlier this year to much fanfare as a largely bipartisan, consensus initiative to reduce the prison population and ramp up spending on programs to reduce the rate at which ex-prisoners commit new crimes.
Monroe Wesley said the governor's office is adamant that any compromise over the reform proposals still deliver significant reductions in the state's prison population.
She stopped short of revealing the governor's position on backing away from the felony class system. But Monroe Wesley stressed there were no sacred cows for the governor's office, as long as the final version is still significant in its impact and its savings to the state.
"We're not drawing a line in the sand," she said.
Amid negotiations, Monroe Wesley said, numbers are being constantly recalculated by Pew — a nonprofit that's provided staffing and analysis to the entire reform project — to ensure that they can identify the savings for each new proposal.
House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, and other key backers of the reforms said they were also insisting that a compromise still significantly cut the state's prison population.
But with so many key provisions in the package on the negotiating table, the implications for Louisiana's prison system are unclear. Monroe Wesley said it was too soon to say whether a compromise would closely resemble the slate of recommendations from the task force.
"I think there will be a compromise and I think they will focus on nonviolent offenses," said state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 139, which would allow for earlier parole eligibility for some convicted of violent crimes.
Monroe Wesley said Friday that negotiations were moving in a positive direction, but they weren't yet "100 percent there."
Leger acknowledged that criminal justice reform could end up being a multi-year effort. Delays at the statehouse, though, risk putting off needed improvements to public safety and the state's bottom line, Leger said.
"I would say there's not one thing that blows the whole thing up," he said. "But we have to get real significant things done this year in order to make this really work."
Leger said changes to the law placing those convicted of simple possession of narcotics into Medicaid-funded treatment instead of prison could drive down crime rates and save money. He also pointed to changes to the state's habitual-offender law, easing punishment for less serious prior felonies, as another reform that could lead to significant savings.
"We have a lot more in common as we sit here right now than we do in disagreement," Leger said. "So each day that goes by we're going to find more and more ways to achieve the kind of savings that kind of allow us to do the reinvestment part."
Even before the opening of the session, the Louisiana District Attorneys Association staked out its position that the revamp should leave any violent crime statutes — and the people serving prison time for violating them — largely untouched.
The state’s district attorneys Friday released a sheaf of changes that, if adopted, could wi…
In a report issued a week before the Legislature convened, the state's chief prosecutors vowed to oppose early release or significantly reduced penalties for violent offenders, calling them "a sure prescription for disaster."
They also criticized the proposed felony class system as "well-intended," but far too hasty an overhaul of the state's "inter-related and complex" criminal code.
Adams said the group's alternative plan also would raise the threshold for felony theft to $1,000 and reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for home invasion from 5 years to one year.
Adams also detailed a suggested change to the state's drug distribution statutes allowing judges to suspend sentences for drugs, except for heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine.
Pew estimates that 11 percent of the prison bed savings would come from raising the dollar figure for a felony theft charge from $750 to $1,000, and by creating tiered sentencing for felons convicted of firearm possession. That proposed change would lower sentencing ranges for drug or sex felons who are caught with a gun.
A full 25 percent of the overall projected savings would come from changes in sentencing for drug crimes, and the resulting impact of more generous parole and "good-time" eligibility for drug offenders who fall in the lower rungs of the proposed felony class system.
It's unclear whether a proposed "weight-based" sentencing structure for drug offenders remains in play.
Unlike many other states, Louisiana make no distinction between someone found in possession of one gram of heroin, for instance, and someone with an ounce. The sentence for heroin possession is 4 to 10 years either way.
More broadly, drug-distribution statutes in Louisiana do little to distinguish between big-time operators and street slingers.
The proposed legislation would drop the penalty for possession of small amounts of heroin - under two grams - to a maximum two-year sentence, with no minimum. Drug distribution penalties also would be tiered by weight, placing Louisiana more in line with neighboring states.
Drug offenders make up the largest share of prison admissions, and more than half of new prison admissions for drug crimes in 2015 were for possession, state data show.
Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, says the state’s sheriffs – often the most prominent elected officials in their parishes – back the concept of funneling a hunk of the projected savings into programs to stanch recidivism.
But they are concerned that the emphasis placed on savings superseded the rest of the revamp, Ranatza told The Advocate Wednesday.
The changes don't appropriate any money up front for specific programs like skills training, job acquisition and follow-ups that would help inmates better integrate into society after their release, apart from the dollars saved from cutting the number of inmates, Ranatza said.
The powerful sheriffs’ association voiced concerns Thursday that violent offenders might be …
Ranatza said he's also lobbying for changes to a portion of Senate Bill 139, which he said would parole some violent offenders without a hearing.
Flozell Daniels, a member of the criminal justice task force whose son was killed in a shooting last year, said it's critical that a compromise over the reforms doesn't undercut the savings needed to improve safety programs.
The current criminal reform package proposed pumping at least half of the $300 million in projected budget savings into programs to cut crime rates.
A compromise that dilutes the proposed reforms, Daniels said, isn't in "the best interest of safety, and it's not in the best interest of taxpayers in this budget crisis that we're in. We need big and bold, audacious legislation. And it ought to be uncomfortable. That's a sign that it might actually work."
Mark Ballard of The Advocate's Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.