After weeks of debate over proposed overhauls to Louisiana's criminal justice system aimed at cutting the state's prison population, the governor, key lawmakers and influential critics have struck a deal they hope will carry the package through the Legislature.
The brokered deal, announced at a Tuesday press conference by Gov. John Bel Edwards and other stakeholders, is now projected to cut the prison population by 10 percent and save the cash-strapped state $262 million over the next decade. The deal calls for a greater proportion of the savings — 70 percent, or $184 million — to be put back into programs aimed at reducing crime and helping victims.
The original version of the package promised to reduce the prison population by 13 percent and save the state $305 million over the same period, with $154 million of savings earmarked for programs.
Edwards and others called the amended legislation a broad "compromise package" that retains much of the savings of the original package while winning over the state's influential district attorneys, who had opposed several key provisions aimed at reducing sentences for violent crimes.
Pete Adams, leader of the state District Attorney's Association, said prosecutors supported changes to reduce the state's outsized prison population, but felt some of the package's initial proposals went too far. The compromise, Adams said, strikes a proper balance.
"We are going to support the package, and if it proves to be effective we can consider going further in future years," Adams said.
The well-timed compromise came just before the three key pieces of legislation were considered on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, where each of them passed by safe margins and with minimal opposition from lawmakers. They will head to the House for further consideration.
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Edwards called the compromise on the bills at the center of the package a "final" agreement, adding that he didn't anticipate significant further changes.
Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, who presented the bills, said he and his fellow lawmakers have passed bills year after year to stiffen prison sentences and restrict opportunities for release for a growing list of crimes, contributing to the state's highest-in-the-world incarceration rate. Now, he said, it's time for the Legislature to correct its mistakes.
"This is a first step, but a giant step in my opinion, in trying to turn this thing around," Martiny said.
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The three bills, Senate Bills 220 and 221 by Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and Senate Bill 139 by Martiny, rewrite sentences for most drug offenses, reducing penalties for low-level drug possession offenses and scaling prison terms based on the amount of drugs involved. The bills also overhauls the state's numerous theft statutes and reduces or eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for several other non-violent crimes.
The compromise preserves about 87 percent of the projected savings tied to the original package, which spans 10 total bills, Edwards said. Other measures contained in the legislative package will reduce financial burdens for people getting out of jail, address juveniles who are sentenced to life without parole and reinvest the money back into public safety programs.
But the deal punts on a proposed class system for felony offenses, at one point a cornerstone of the package, which would've created uniform sentencing ranges for most of the state's crimes. That proposal will be considered next year and SB220 now creates a task force that will study and make specific recommendations about the sweeping class system overhaul, which was opposed by the district attorneys.
Delaying the felony class system was a major concession by the governor's office and other prison reform advocates. The prosecutors were also successful in eliminating expanded probation and parole opportunities for violent offenders from the legislation.
Changes that would've offered long-serving prisoners convicted of violent crime a shot at release were also largely scrapped as part of the compromise, with a couple of exceptions.
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People sentenced as first-time violent offenders in the future would have chances at parole earlier in their sentences, though inmates already in prison for violent crimes wouldn't see any changes. And a group of about 140 inmates sentenced to life for second-degree murder in the 1970s who were given parole eligibility after 40 years at sentencing but lost it under subsequent tough-on-crime laws would regain it.
Adams said his organization had agreed to drop their objection to extending the parole eligibility to the narrowly defined group of violent offenders.
Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, who worked on the task force that helped craft the original package, said he wished the entire slate of changes could've made it into law — "but you need the votes to get it passed."
Echoing the governor, Leger said, "87 percent is a huge accomplishment."