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Prisoner rights group VOTE marches to Angola State Penitentiary, starting a little over a mile down the road from Mt. Zion Baptist Church Friday June 19, 2020, in Tunica, La. The protest is meant to address mass incarceration and systemic racism (and lack of prisoner releases during coronavirus), reminding people on Juneteenth that freedom is still hard to achieve for some.

Will Harrell, a criminal justice warrior at the State Capitol, scolded himself last week for thinking he saw a sea change in the traditional tough-on-crime stance that has made Louisiana a world leader for incarcerating its population. What he really had seen was a brief calm in the eye of the storm.

Still, Harrell, a lawyer for Voice of the Experienced, says the respite indicates that the Legislature is moving past the era of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” laws.

Legislation that tweaks the way Louisiana punishes criminal offenders moved in relative obscurity during a session where attention focused on Democrats refusing to help change the state’s taxing system as long as a legislator who alluded to the “good of slavery” remained chair of the House Education committee.

In 2017, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law a comprehensive criminal justice revamp aimed at reducing the number of inmates serving long prison terms. That system cost nearly $1 billion a year, and did little more than create conditions that increased the likelihood of people returning to prison shortly after release. Louisiana’s incarceration rate has been dropping since, but the state still has the highest rate in the nation and much of the world with 680 per 100,000 residents imprisoned, according to the Sentencing Project, a national advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. That’s more than Rwanda (511), more than Cuba (510), more than Russia and Nicaragua put together.

Voice of the Experienced is a New Orleans-based group of formerly incarcerated people whose advocates are seen by the dozens in blue “VOTE” T-shirts at committee hearings and in the halls outside the chambers. They’re pushing to eliminate inconsistencies in laws, mostly enacted during the 1980s and 1990s “War on Crime,” that keep Louisiana’s incarceration rates high.

One key bill, after much negotiation and many iterations, would turn death during illegal drug use from second-degree murder to manslaughter, except for distributors of certain drugs. Currently, if one junkie shares his needle with another who dies of an overdose, addict is classed as a second-degree murderer. The new law would expose him to a lesser sentence under manslaughter charges.

Republicans helped advance that measure, House Bill 158, then summarily rejected Senate Bill 69, which would expand those definitions. SB69's definition can mean one kid sharing his Adderall — prescribed to address attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD — with a friend who dies can face life in prison.

Buoyed by support from some GOP House members and district attorneys, VOTE didn’t lean into getting HB158 through the House. Harrell said he saw his mistake as the green voting machine lights switched to red. Most lawmakers didn’t know about the bill but read “second degree murder” in the title and saw visions of campaign attack ads featuring their faces letting “convicted killers” loose to prey on Louisiana children. Soon after HB158 died, out came Senate Bill 69 for a second attempt. SB69 is scheduled for a House vote on Monday.

Still, the criminal justice revamp movement had some significant wins, Harrell said. One of the biggest was delivered last week to Gov. John Bel Edwards and would open parole as an option for more than a thousand lifers in the state’s penitentiaries.

House Bill 145 would align various legislative attempts over the years at showing tough-on-crime creds, but basically ended up levying different sentences and parole eligibilities for the same crime depending on when the person was convicted during the past three decades.

In 1990, the Legislature provided parole eligibility for people sentenced to at least 30 years who had served 20 years and had reached the age of 45. It's called the 20/45 law. That lasted until 1995 when a new law changed “good time” parole eligibility for crimes of violence. Then in 2008, the law was changed again by removing those convicted of armed robbery from 20/45 eligibility.

Only one House member voted against the final version of HB145’s goal of bringing consistency to the laws.

“These young Republicans aren’t as vested in that whole tough-on-crime stuff as some of the older guys are,” Harrell said.

Many of the young Republicans, particularly in the House, were children during the “War on Crime” era that filled up prisons. “They see it’s too expensive. It doesn’t address the real problem, addiction, and it hasn’t worked,” Harrell said.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.