If you are in favor of sensible criminal justice policies, are you soft on crime? We don't think so, but at the drop of a legislative hat, some lawmakers are ready to malign the motives of reformers.
There are a great many bills related to criminal justice this year, in part because of a commendable effort by Gov. John Bel Edwards and a coalition of groups — liberals and conservatives, labor and business — to make a dent in Louisiana's out-of-control prison population.
But regardless of the current reform movement, one measure might have come up anyway because of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings involving life sentences for juveniles convicted of violent crimes.
Senate Bill 16 by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, addresses juvenile life sentences in two ways. It retroactively make all inmates who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles eligible for a parole hearing after serving 30 years if they meet other conditions, including good behavior and participation in rehabilitation programs.
The 89 Louisiana inmates serving life sentences for murder convictions they received while juveniles could thus be eligible for parole consideration.
The second part of the proposed law applies to new convictions. If a juvenile is convicted of second-degree murder, he could no longer be considered for life without parole. But if the juvenile is convicted of first-degree murder, a district attorney could call for a hearing prior to sentencing to determine whether life without parole could be considered.
While no members of the Senate committee on Monday formally opposed advancing the bill, almost everyone expressed concerns.
The lack of consensus on an issue where the federal courts are pushing the states on concerns about juvenile offenders worries those of us favoring big changes in today's criminal justice system.
The Claitor bill does not go far enough for some liberals, but the problem in legislative terms is likely to be among conservatives.
Some Republicans on the Senate committee felt the district attorneys should maintain discretion to seek the harshest penalties.
State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said he was skeptical of prison reform measures. "If we go too far, and we let people out who have committed murder, there could be a huge backlash," he said.
Yes, but if we do nothing, the taxpayer supports these juvenile offenders for life, not counting the costs of Supreme Court-mandated sentencing rehearings they are now eligible for.
This bill makes sense because parole is not a sure thing, and there would still be checks in place to keep the most threatening offenders behind bars. Life without parole would remain a very real prospect in the most heinous crimes.
Why not bring Louisiana law more into line with the nation and the South?
State Sen. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan, was frankly insulting to Claitor and other reformers. "I don't think we've talked 30 seconds about any of the victims of these crimes," he said after a two-hour debate.
As if Claitor, a former prosecutor, and others in this debate have no concern for crime victims?
Some legislators seem determined to malign the motives of reformers who represent a broad swath of political opinion in the state, and pander to the instincts of the crowd that led to our No. 1 status in incarceration.