After a year, new north shore DA remains popular but faces some major issues _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery shares a laugh with his wife, Valarie Montgomery, during his swearing-in ceremony Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, at the St. Tammany Justice Center in Covington.

Putting hard-core criminals away is not a precise business. For law enforcement and prosecutors, a good case against a bad guy might go away because of any number of factors, and our system of justice — rightly — puts high hurdles in the way of conviction.

Still, prosecutors' discretion can be abused, and there is rising criticism of one of Louisiana's toughest criminal laws: stiff habitual-offender penalties, raising both the low and high ends of sentences for those convicted of repeat crimes.

In some cases, the additional penalties can reach 20 years to life for a fourth conviction, whatever the felony involved. That, obviously, can mean more people stuffed into prisons for years, on the taxpayers' dime.

According to data analyzed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, just three district attorneys in the state actually invoked the law with any frequency last year: Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes.

None of the 39 other judicial districts in the state — including populous East Baton Rouge Parish — shipped more than three people to prison under the statute last year.

Under the law, after a conviction of a repeat offender, a district attorney can file to have the convict's punishment enhanced on account of his criminal history. Prosecutors need only prove that the details of that history are accurate, and judges have little choice but to lengthen the convict's sentence, sometimes exponentially. Some plea deals also incorporate habitual-offender sentences.

In St. Tammany Parish, new District Attorney Warren Montgomery said the office's policies are reducing the use of repeat-offender statutes. Further, he says — and we suspect most DAs would also argue — that there are plentiful opportunities in terms of drug treatment and other alternatives to imprisonment for genuinely nonviolent offenders.

Still, it's a good idea for a criminal justice study committee to look into the statute. The Pew data was presented to the panel recently.

How do repeat offender laws work in practice? Pete Adams of the DA's association explained it as an alternative invoked in difficult cases.

"The anecdotal stories I'm getting back are: You've got a guy with a long history of violent arrests, he's just a bad guy, and he ends up as a third felony offender on a murder case you can't get witnesses on, or you got him for drugs in the same incident," Adams said. "You don't prosecute the murder case; you put him away on the (charge of) felony intent to distribute drugs, which is what you need" for a lengthy sentence, even though it is listed as a conviction for a nonviolent offense.

This, of course, does not entirely explain away why such a tool is used disproportionately in a few jurisdictions.

What does the system no good, though, is a reputation for repeated use of a shortcut to a prison sentence, when the evidence is not there to win a case involving a violent crime.

It's probably a small part of the prison overcrowding issue, but worth taking a look at.